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Stephen Piscotty is an RBI machine

The Oakland A’s have struggled in the clutch, but not Piscotty

Oakland Athletics v Arizona Diamondbacks
Move over, Emil Brown
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The RBI is a limited stat. It means more than nothing, since it does tell you about an important thing that happened in a game. But it’s not a terribly useful metric for individual analytical purposes because the raw version is completely dependent on opportunity — two equal players will have vastly different totals depending on how well their teams set them up. A higher number is good, but from the player’s standpoint there are many uncontrollable external factors that go into it beyond just his ability and performance.

Driving in runs requires having runners on base, but many A’s hitters have enjoyed a ton of such opportunities. It’s been one of the only complaints about the AL-best club this season, as their low-average, low-contact methods have proven inefficient in cashing in on those chances. Their .215 average with runners in scoring position is 29th in MLB, in a situation where all you need is a clutch single, and it’s not that they’ve disappeared in those instances — they’re batting .226 overall (24th in MLB), so this is just who they’ve been all the time.

One A’s hitter has risen above the rest in this regard, and that’s Stephen Piscotty. The right fielder leads the club with 25 RBI, tied for fifth in the majors, and he hasn’t gotten there just because of extra opportunity. He’s simply just gotten the job done, over and over.

Before we go any further, we must point out what we’re talking about here. Clutchiness isn’t a skill that predicts the future, just one that describes the past. Even if Piscotty keeps hitting well, this trend will likely regress toward normalcy to some extent. The story here is that, SO FAR, he’s the guy who’s gotten the job done best in Oakland.

The A’s have four players in the MLB Top 30 in terms of the number of runners they’ve had on base when coming to bat. Piscotty is not one of those four. He ranks fifth on the team, 39th in the bigs in such chances. He leads the team in success because he’s driven in 26.7% of those runners, which is the highest rate in the majors for anyone with 100 plate appearances (or second, if you count Andrew McCutchen’s 96 PAs at 29.2%). MLB as a whole is at 14.6% in this department, barely half of Piscotty’s figure, and only fellow outfielders Mark Canha (22.9%) and Robbie Grossman (18.2%) have been meaningfully better than average.

And how has he driven in all those extra runners? Behold:

  • Piscotty, overall: .260/.308/.479
  • Piscotty, w/runners: .333/.400/.625
  • Piscotty, w/RISP: .385/.393/.885

Two particular swings of the bat have played big roles and perfectly illustrated Piscotty’s effect. In one game he hit a walk-off grand slam against the Rangers, and in another he hit a game-tying grand slam in the 9th against the Giants, turning a nearly sure loss into an eventual victory. Those two slams account for nearly one-third of his RBI total — he won’t necessarily keep collecting them in bunches like that, but the fact is the A’s have been desperate for these kinds of clutch hits and Piscotty is the one authoring them most often and in some of the most massive-leverage moments.

All of this helps explains why he was moved up in the batting order on Tuesday. He did almost all of the above damage out of the seventh and eighth spots of the lineup, plus a few turns at sixth. But last night he shifted up to fifth, his highest placement of the summer, and kept right on trucking.

With the A’s leading late 7-3, but still searching for that final knockout punch, Piscotty lined a double into the corner to clear the bases. Three more ribbies, which didn’t WIN the game, but did put it away to an extent where a Texas comeback went from unlikely to nearly unthinkable. Even better, he didn’t rely on a homer to do it, as around half of his RBI have come despite keeping the ball in the park — another thing the A’s have struggled to do as a group.

We already know Piscotty is a good hitter. We saw it in 2018, and he has genuinely bounced back from his injury-riddled 2019, still in his prime at age 29. We can nitpick some small-sample peripherals, like a concerningly-bloated swinging-strike rate and a career-low walk rate, but there’s every reason to believe in his solid 114 wRC+ mark. (Aside: Is it possible that newly aggressive approach is not a coincidence or even a problem, but rather a causative factor in his success?)

In the first half of this short 2020 season, he’s been even more than that above-average batting line. On a team whose pond is perpetually full of ducks, he’s been the one hitter most able to send them flying home.