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Stephen Piscotty is back

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The outfielder had an off-year in 2019. That’s in the past.

MLB: AUG 16 Athletics at Giants Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2018, Stephen Piscotty was one of the better players on a 97-win Oakland A’s team. In 2019, the right fielder mostly disappeared due to injury, missing nearly 70 games and barely playing above replacement-level.

We’re only 22 games into 2020, and he’s only played 17 of them, but it’s safe to say Piscotty is back.

First, consider the basic numbers. See if you can pick the outlier of these three, when he was battling injuries.

  • 2018: .267/.331/.491, 126 wRC+, .359 xwOBA
  • 2019: .249/.309/.412, 93 wRC+, .326 xwOBA
  • 2020: .250/.324/.517, 127 wRC+, .366 xwOBA

He’s more or less returned to the quality hitter he was two years ago, when he hit 27 homers and totaled 3 WAR. If he were a new upcoming prospect, then we might withhold judgment on such a small sample, but in this case it’s a 29-year-old returning to a previously established level of success after known health issues. The Statcast xwOBA offers further reason to think that he’s truly hitting the ball well like he used to, which didn’t happen last summer.

Looking deeper, one big difference shows up in his performance against breaking balls. His numbers against them tanked last year, and it’s not entirely clear why — he didn’t whiff more on them, or hit them softer or at a lower angle (i.e. into the ground). His results just stunk against them, both in real life and the theoretical metrics. This year he’s crushing them, helped along by two homers already, matching his total against breaking balls from all of 2019 (in five times more opportunities).

Piscotty is also swinging more than ever, both in and out of the zone, and also on the first pitch, and yet is walking at his highest rate since 2017. We found a similar phenomenon with Robbie Grossman, which is an interesting coincidence-or-not. Piscotty is correspondingly whiffing a bit more than he used to as well, but his strikeout rate is still well within acceptable range (21.7%).

Finally, he’s pulling the ball way more than ever, nearly half the time instead of around one-third. That helps explain the career-high .267 isolated slugging percentage (slugging minus batting average), since there’s usually more power to be had in that direction than the opposite field.

Add it up, and we have a Piscotty who is more aggressive and more willing to swing early in the count, but still targeting pitches he can handle rather than chasing slop. When he hits it he’s more often pulling it with his full might instead of spraying it evenly around the field, and you can’t sneak a breaking ball past him as easily as last year.

Those trends have been apparent in Piscotty’s big moments so far. His walk-off grand slam against the Rangers came on the first pitch of the at-bat, and his 9th-inning slam against the Giants was off a second-pitch curveball. When he got the pitch he liked, he didn’t wait around to see if another good one was coming later, he went after it, and three of his four homers have been pulled to left (with the other to center).

It remains to be seen how many of these new developments are real and which are just small-sample noise, but there’s no reason to doubt Piscotty’s overall success. He’s been a good hitter before, and now that he’s finally healthy he’s a good hitter again, in a similar decent-average, middling-OBP, plus-power, clutch performer kind of way.

The A’s entered 2020 with an outfield problem, in that they had too many good ones. Now one of the question marks is resolved, and there’s another star on the overcrowded list. Somehow, Oakland will survive.