Stanford product Stephen Piscotty studies master's-level hitting

JUPITER, Fla. – Stephen Piscotty checked his inbox this spring and discovered an email from John Mabry, his hitting coach. The two are around each other about 10 hours each day with the St. Louis Cardinals, so it seemed a bit odd that Mabry would communicate electronically rather than just walk up to the young outfielder and say, “Hi.”

Piscotty clicked on the message. It contained links to a series of articles on the mechanics of hitting, one of which contained stop-action photography of the moment of collision between bat and ball. Piscotty closely studied the spin of the ball as it rebounded from impact. It’s in that granular detail that he makes his living. How a baseball rotates off the bat could be the difference between launching a home run and lofting a lazy fly ball.

“You want to get to that optimal point right here where it’s strongest, where it’s straight on,” said Piscotty, holding his hands directly in front of his body. “If your hands are out in front, you’re going to get a lot of sidespin on the ball. And the same thing is true the other way. You’re going to get sidespin to left field if the barrel is out in front. You want true backspin. You get that at the ideal contact position.”

Backspin is a particular obsession of Piscotty’s because he is trying to turn himself from a line-drive hitter into more of a middle-of-the-order slugger. He mashed 22 home runs last season, and the team thinks it’s only a matter of time before he’s good for 25 or more each season. Piscotty, 26, might be the key player in what the Cardinals are hoping will develop into a young core for another run at championship glory.

Mabry didn’t send his message to Piscotty as a group email. He tailors his approach to each of his hitters based on how much information they want and how much they can absorb and apply. Piscotty is the most voracious learner in the clubhouse.

“He has a higher level of learning,” Mabry said. “There are times when you’re talking trigonometry and times you’re talking addition and subtraction. He can handle all the information. That’s what his deal is. He wants all the information, and he can process it and make it simple.”

To graduate with a degree in atmosphere and energy engineering at Stanford, as Piscotty did, requires 45 units of math and science classes. Among the prerequisites is Physics 41: Mechanics.

The course description says, “Students learn to describe the motion of objects (kinematics) and then understand why motions have the form they do (dynamics). Emphasis on how the important physical principles in mechanics, such as conservation of momentum and energy for translational and rotational motion, follow from just three laws of nature: Newton's laws of motion.”

Newton's first law of motion is about inertia. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. No. 2 explains how the velocity of an object changes when it is subjected to an external force. The third law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Even though he wrote those laws about 330 years ago, Isaac Newton may as well have been a hitting coach.

“I can’t say it was super applicable. It’s pretty dense math,” said Piscotty, whose other physics class at Stanford covered electricity and magnetism. “But it’s an interesting thing to think about sometimes.”

Piscotty’s learning at Stanford prepared him for more cerebral pursuits than hitting a baseball. He has a particular interest in alternative energy sources, and if he chooses to, could help make the world a more sustainable place after he retires.

In the interim, Piscotty’s linear, studious approach to the game has impressed the Cardinals. He taught himself to hit for power in the minor leagues. Now, he is trying to adhere to the team’s No. 1 offseason goal and make himself into the most complete player he can be.

“He thinks about not just results, but a lot of the technique and the process behind it,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said.

Piscotty has led the charge for better baserunning this spring. Though his raw speed is barely better than major-league average, he may be the team’s second-best baserunner after center fielder Dexter Fowler. The most buzzworthy moment all spring was when Piscotty tagged up at second base and advanced on a foul popup to the first baseman that landed near the dugout. Piscotty was aware of each of the Miami Marlins’ defensive reputations, and he took advantage of Justin Bour, a lumbering, 279-pound first baseman.

“How many guys do that?” Mabry wondered. “That’s not instinct. That’s study and awareness.”

This might be the season Piscotty breaks through and reaches his first All-Star Game. He certainly has the look of a player on the cusp. Whether he improves his game appreciably or not, there is an excellent chance he’ll be able to identify issues and find solutions next winter. If you’re aware, you always have a chance. As Newton wrote, “My powers are ordinary. Only my application brings me success.”