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Which recent Cardinal is most likely to become a star?

We are getting close to actual baseball that counts which means there's plenty of material issues worth discussing. This post, however, will not deal with any of them. It's not even a post about the Cardinals. At least, not current ones. Rather, I want to quickly go over the following exchange which caught my eye during Jeff Sullivan's chat at FanGraphs on Friday.

Sullivan had to say someone since "none of the above" wasn't an option and who knows how much thought and analysis went into answering this particular question during a rapid-fire chat, which doesn't allow much time for either. But I'm curious if the smart money is on Randal Grichuk so let's take it a little further.

Aledmys Diaz

First, Aledmys Diaz plays a position that doesn't typically require the same type of offensive production to be considered a "star" as say one of the corner outfield spots (e.g., Addison Russell has been considered a "budding superstar" more than once and he's never been an above-average hitter), but I think a majority would agree that this is a contest between Grichuk and Piscotty, who, barring something unforeseen, have plenty of years left in the league. I don't know if we can confidently say the same about Diaz just yet. So, moving on...

Randal Grichuk

This is what we know about Randal Grichuk: He can play all over the outfield and will hit plenty of home runs so long as he gets the at-bats. Since 2015, only David Ortiz, Lucas Duda, and Justin Boar have hit more home runs in fewer plate appearances than Grichuk. There's obvious value in that.

Grichuk's problem though, and this is no secret, has always been plate discipline. For his career he's struck out more than five times for every walk, and players with a BB/K ratio of 0.20 or worse typically don't grade out very well. Going back the last five seasons, here are the players with a 0.20 or worse BB/K ratio and a wRC+ of 100 or better (minimum 400 plate appearances per season):

2017: Paul DeJong, Salvador Perez

2016: Roughned Odor, Grichuk

2015: none

2014: Danny Santana, Juan Uribe, Yan Gomes, Adam Jones, Marlon Byrd

2013: Starling Marte, Adam Jones, Wilin Rosario

Not a huge list. That's twelve examples out of a sample of 49 players from 2013 to 2017, who had 400 or more plate appearances in a season and struck out least five times for every walk. Simply put, it's not easy to be an above average hitter while striking out a lot without backstopping that with a decent amount of free trips to first.

And, perhaps more telling, after nearly 1,400 career plate appearances, this might just be who Grichuk is. His walk and strikeout rates haven't fluctuated much since 2015 (they've actually both gotten a little worse), and our own Joe Schwarz has previously posited that he believes that better pitch recognition, if that is indeed Grichuk's problem, is not a skill easily acquired at the highest level of baseball.

Of course, it's obviously not unheard of for a player to drastically improve their walk and strikeout rates. Take the sample from 2013, Starling Marte, in particular. That season, Marte struck out in 24.4 percent of plate appearances while walking just 4.4 percent of the time. By 2015, Marte struck out in 19.4 percent of plate appearances. Last season, Marte only struck out 18.6 percent of the time, and raised his walk rate to near six percent, which isn't great but is better. Now here's the obligatory mention that 2017 was a smaller sample (339 plate appearances) because Marte missed a bulk of the season with a PED suspension, and that his slugging (.379) fell to a career low, AND that for the first time in his career Marte was a below average hitter. All true words.

Fair enough. But the takeaway here is that improving one's BB/K ratio can be done, has been done, and maybe Grichuk can do it, too. Does your eye test tell you that it's likely? Mine doesn't and that's one of the reasons why I don't see Grichuk morphing into a star player in the near-future. And that's okay, because, as mentioned earlier, purchasing Grichuk as-is is still a fun, worthwhile investment.

Stephen Piscotty

As for Stephen Piscotty, unlike Grichuk, he's not quite as versatile in the outfield and his career has ebbed and flowed, but has unfortunately ebbed and flowed in the wrong direction. Since his call-up in 2015, Piscotty has 1,306 career plate appearances, and, while I'm not breaking any news here, there's a fine, distinct line between the first half of his young career and the second. Take a look:

7/21/15 - 7/23/16

651 PAs; .298/.363/.490; 132 wRC+

7/24/16 - 9/30/17

655 PAs; .238/.329/.384; 93 wRC+

Ouch. Here's what else we know about the second half as compared to the first to help explain the regression: Piscotty's BABIP fell around 50 points, same with his ISO, and his strikeout rate increased 4.5 percent.

If Piscotty's first half numbers never return, he would hardly be the first player to put up the best numbers for his career right out of the gate. The most decorated baseball player from my hometown was a legitimate superstar his first full season, which would ultimately be his best in the bigs (although he still had a very good career). In 1989, two Cubs, Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith, finished first and second, respectively, for NL Rookie of the Year and were both basically never heard from again as far as worthwhile production goes. It happens all the time.

Still, my answer to the very not-pressing question above is Piscotty for reasons no more interesting than I don't see Grichuk ever graduating from his current form (which, again, his current form plays and is perfectly fine!), while I think the first half of Piscotty's career could still reasonably be Piscotty. Maybe it's because he's famously changed his swing before in an effort to increase his power and it worked, or that he doesn't have as noticeable of a weakness (or strength) as Grichuk, or maybe I'm just lazily giving him that "he went to Stanford, so I don't want to underestimate him" bump. But I don't feel as comfortable at this point believing that the book has been written on Stephen Piscotty. We'll see.

To close, there's no obvious answer here. If there was, one of these guys would still be a Cardinal. Because this question does interest me though (and because I like all three of these players), I'm guessing I will be paying more attention to Diaz, Grichuk, and Piscotty this season than any other non-Cardinal. Lastly, if you have your own thoughts on this question, I would certainly like to hear them.


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