Talk with Triple-A manager sparked Piscotty's breakout season

March 22nd, 2016

JUPITER, Fla. -- Before he hit safely in his first 10 Major League starts or became the impact bat the Cardinals couldn't find in the trade market. Before he received National League Rookie of the Year Award consideration concurrent to being named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year. Before he shined under an October spotlight or was to become the successor to Jason Heyward in right field, Stephen Piscotty wondered if it had all been a mistake.

It was the second week of May, 29 games into his season at Triple-A Memphis, and the results were underwhelming. Piscotty had recognized the risk in overhauling his swing that previous offseason, but he went through with it anyway, convinced by the potential for long-term reward. But had he miscalculated?

Piscotty had ascended to Triple-A in 2014, and he was to enter Spring Training in '15 on the cusp of the Majors. But he wasn't certain that what could get him to St. Louis would allow him to thrive there, and that foresight prompted substantial changes to his swing path with the belief that it could untap greater power potential.

Now, as Memphis arrived in Colorado Springs for a four-game series, Piscotty wasn't seeing the anticipated payoff. Sure, the power numbers were up -- Piscotty had 14 extra-base hits in 104 at-bats -- but so, too, were the strikeouts (20). He was most alarmed, however, by his average, which sat at .231.

"It wasn't," Piscotty recalled, "what I thought it would be."

His confidence waning, Piscotty sought out manager Mike Shildt. The two had a relationship dating back to 2013, when Shildt managed Piscotty at Double-A Springfield and later in the Arizona Fall League. He had watched Piscotty's maturation as a hitter and offered the reassurance Piscotty needed to hear.

The two sat down for what Piscotty described as "a couple-hour meeting." Both remember the heart-to-heart session well, even though Shildt said he had never talked about it publicly until now.

"Stephen took a risk," Shildt recalled this week, where he's assisting the big league coaching staff in Spring Training. "He was on the path to be a big league player, and before he even got to the big leagues, he recognized that he could be a better version of himself. He was going through that process and, like any learning curve, most of the time it goes down before it goes up.

"Being process-oriented and continuing to work on it and knowing that he felt good about where he was going but he wasn't seeing it back, there is normally some apprehension about what is going on here."

With questions and insight, Shildt prompted Piscotty through a session of self-evaluation.

Shildt applauded Piscotty for the leap of faith and reassured the young outfielder that there would be an eventual payoff. He explained to him how the organization keeps an internal tally of quality plate appearances -- a subjective stat, but one the Cardinals use to forecast future results -- and that Piscotty had a higher percentage than anyone on Memphis' team.

Have you hit balls differently than you have in the past? Are you doing it more consistently than you've ever done before? Do you see how often teams are pitching around you? Can you still see the end goal?

To each, Piscotty answered in the affirmative.

"Honestly, I don't know if I contributed anything to that conversation," Shildt said. "Sometimes when you're able to talk outside your thoughts, things crystallize. I was just a sounding board for him there. It's his talent. It's his courage. It's his hard work. He's a special young man on and off the field. I was pleased that he was able to trust me to have the conversation."

For Piscotty, there was reassurance that others, too, believed in his process.

"He calmed me down, and really from that point on, it got better and better," Piscotty said. "Mentally, he just helped me relax. I give him a lot of credit for that."

The conversation became a critical footnote in what followed for Piscotty, who, after that series in Colorado Springs, hit .302/.390/.497 in what many anticipate were the final 54 Minor League games he'll play.

His callup to the Majors came on July 21, and it all felt right, Piscotty said in early August after playing several games with stiffness in his neck.

"I remember trying so hard to just play through that, and that was changing up my mechanics a little bit, because I had to open up [my stance] to face the pitcher," Piscotty said. "It was almost a blessing, really, to revert back to what I've always done, remember what I had been working on and have them kind of just mashed together. That's when it clicked."

Piscotty went on to have a banner finish. In his 63 games with the Cards, he tallied 18 multihit games, 26 extra-base hits, seven game-winning RBIs, 23 two-out RBIs and hit .393 with runners in scoring position. He set a franchise NL Division Series record with six RBIs against the Cubs and hit three home runs, tying Willie McGee and Kolten Wong for the franchise rookie postseason record.

It gave Piscotty something tangible to go along with the trust.

"You knew he was going to be good," said roommate and fellow young outfielder Randal Grichuk. "It was just a matter of when he was going to get the opportunity."

That immediate success played a key role in the Cardinals' decision not to pivot and pursue other free-agent outfielders after Heyward rebuked them. Instead, they handed the job to Piscotty, a cerebral 25-year-old Stanford graduate who sits poised to be a part of the Cards' emerging young core.

Piscotty has pieced together a strong Grapefruit League showing, going 12-for-31 with a .472 on-base percentage, despite entering camp with a defense-first focus. In the same way he saw growth as a hitter, Piscotty desires to become more complete as an outfielder. That has led to extensive work with his throwing mechanics to increase accuracy and arm strength.

"It's not something where I can say, 'I've done it. I'm there. I've arrived. I've figured it out,'" Piscotty said. "I'm not claiming to know it all because I had a good half-season in the big leagues."

Having seen what can come of taking chances, Piscotty isn't finished fine-tuning. He got to St. Louis a better player than most envisioned he'd be at this age, a credit to the persistence with which he weathered the moments of doubt.

"Most people, almost all people, are unwilling to change, especially when they're getting where they want to go," Shildt said. "But Stephen recognized what was going to get him there may not keep him there or fulfill his ultimate abilities. I've never had anybody with such tremendous foresight. It's really unbelievable. No one can predict anything, but his habits and the way he goes about things, he was always set up to be successful."