ST. LOUIS — Matt Holliday isn’t going to play in St. Louis forever, even if it sometimes feels like he already has.
Should the St. Louis Cardinals‘ front office pick up his $17 million option for next season or sign him to a multi-year extension, there still will be a time not far off when Holliday, 36, either plays elsewhere or retires. It happens to every player and rarely is the ending orchestrated perfectly.
Which is why, for the Cardinals, Stephen Piscotty is so crucial to their future. The team has good reason to believe Piscotty can be the high-on-base-percentage, high-batting-average, power-to-all-fields right-handed presence in their lineup that Holliday has been since 2009. In fact, it’s possible, if not probable, that Piscotty will be batting third for the Cardinals in the not too distant future.
Holliday even sees a little of himself, circa 2005, in Piscotty.
“He’s had an advanced approach from the first time I saw him and I think that’s allowed him to really hit for a high average and he’s starting to produce some power,” Holliday said. “We have similar approaches to hitting, our best swing is middle of the field to right-center. We’re both taller right-handed hitters. He has a bright future. He is a really good player and I’m excited to watch as his career unfolds.”
The Cardinals also think Piscotty can help replace the leadership Holliday has offered for all these years. Manager Mike Matheny had Piscotty, among a few other young players in mind, when he involved them in discussions he had previously reserved for what he calls his leadership core, comprised of veterans until this spring.
Piscotty, in his second season, is still in listen-and-don’t-speak mode for the moment, but he’s in the information-gathering stage.
“We have such impressive, strong veteran leadership here that we’re in such good hands, I’m kind of learning from them right now,” Piscotty said.
Piscotty grew up the oldest of three boys, all of whom played or play major college baseball. He is accustomed to being the mature one and a role model. In fact, it’s that adjective, “mature,” that you hear so frequently connected to Piscotty, who became one of the leaders on the Stanford baseball team by his junior season. The way it worked, he said, is that he and Tyler Gaffney, who now plays for the New England Patriots, handled the hitters. Mark Appel was in charge of the pitchers.
“No question, he was very well-liked and respected, but he also has a tremendous work ethic,” Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. “It’s kind of contagious. He’s not really a rah-rah guy, but he just works at his craft no matter what he’s doing. Even as a freshman, he came in and wanted to make himself into an even better hitter.”
The challenge for Marquess is to get young hitters to think less about home runs and more about hitting off-speed pitches to the opposite field. They might not see good changeups and breaking balls in high school, so it’s a skill they never developed. He didn’t have that battle with Piscotty, who wanted to be a pure hitter — rather than a power hitter — from his high school days in the suburban San Francisco Bay Area. The Cardinals had the opposite discussion when Piscotty was still in the minor leagues. They were willing to sacrifice some batting average and allow for more strikeouts if he learned to hit for more power.
“My explanation is, ‘If you’re a good hitter and you sign a pro contract and the team says, ‘You know what, we don’t care if you hit .300 or .350, we want you to hit for power and we don’t care if you hit .250,’ that’s a lot easier adjustment to make. But if you sign a pro contract and hit .250 and they want you to hit .350, that’s a much more difficult thing to do,” Marquess said. “Stephen understood that.”
It has come more quickly than you would expect for Piscotty, who made significant swing changes last season in the minor leagues to produce more power. He is third on the team with an .875 OPS, second with 23 RBIs and is on pace to hit more than 20 home runs.
“Everyone felt that, if the power came, he would be a special player,” general manager John Mozeliak said.
Piscotty thinks he fit in so easily in Marquess’ program because his militant discipline and serious approach mesh well with Marquess’ old-school style. He also thinks it has helped him transition easily to professional baseball, where the players have huge financial stakes. There is less togetherness and more pressure.
“I didn’t feel like I was as good a player when it was super lackadaisical and just, like, show up,” Piscotty said. “I always wanted to have some intent and purpose. You could ask some other people about it, but that’s how I look back on it.”