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The return of Joe Panik, excellent second baseman

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Forget that last year happened. In several respects.

Division Series - Chicago Cubs v San Francisco Giants- Game Four Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

1.
The title of my projection for Joe Panik last year was titled, “Joe Panik is going to be healthy and excellent this year.”

In retrospect, that was probably a little much.

2.
Joe Panik, 2016 projected
PA: 601
AVG: .310
OBP: .377
SLG: .451
HR: 11
SB: 13
CS: 3

Joe Panik, 2016 actual
PA: 526
AVG: .239
OBP: .315
SLG: .379
HR: 10
SB: 5
CS: 0

At least I came close to the home runs?

3.
I never thought I would see Joe Panik hit .239. At least, not until he was 41, or some nonsense. I wasn’t sure if the power would ever get him in the double-digit-dinger club, and that was going to mean that he was never going to be a hyper-OBP/high-walk player because pitchers wouldn’t be as afraid to challenge him.

But he would hit the ball, and even with the mercurial nature of batting average, he was going to hit the ball enough to make up for the average walk rate and below-average power. He was going to hit .291 for his career, just like Bill Mueller. He was going to do a lot of things like Mueller, really, except Panik was going to win a Gold Glove, too.

It turns out that Panik can have bad years at the plate, where he gets hits at roughly the same rate as Jose Castillo. This is disconcerting.

Also, Bill Mueller won a Silver Slugger award once, and I’m still not sure what to do with that information. .

4.
There are some positive signs to remember from Panik’s 2016 season. The Gold Glove is a big one, as he was once again the kind of player who didn’t have to hit to be valuable. The Giants can endure some growing pains because he can catch and throw like a demon.

It wasn’t just Panik’s plus defense that suggests 2016 was a floor, not a ceiling. He also walked more than he struck out, showing off some of the best bat control in the game.

His career batting average on balls in play entering last season was .336. Last year, it was .245. Give him the same luck and skill that he showed in his first two seasons, and that makes up the difference right there.

5.
There are some red flags from Panik’s 2016 season. He made extraordinarily weak contact. Look at his exit velocity compared to the league average last year:

That explains away the BABIP right there. Hit it weakly, expect it to get caught. While it sure seemed like Panik was getting robbed of his rightful hits, it might have been that his swing lacked a certain ooomph that he had before.

If, for whatever reason, Panik can’t hit the ball as hard as he used to, he’s probably going to languish in slappyville for the rest of his career, which would cost him his starting job at some point.

6.
There is context, though! Sweet, sweet context for the lackluster swing. Panik wasn’t himself, but there was good reason.

It all started with a pitch from Matt Moore, who took Panik and Matt Duffy away from the Giants in the same month. What manner of eyebrow sorcery ... anyway, the point is that Panik was hit by a pitch, and that gave him a concussion. The symptoms lingered and futzed with his vision. That all led to weaker contact.

Things are better now:

Said Panik: “In the past couple springs, it took me awhile to find my approach and my stroke. I’m just happy early on in spring I’ve been able to find it. Right now I’ve got it locked in and with my approach, I’m not late on the fastball. I’ve been aggressive. It just feels good to feel normal, like myself again, hitting line drives and hitting the ball hard.”

It veers close to best-shape-of-his-life or learned-a-new-pitch territory, but when a player who used to hit the ball hard stops hitting the ball hard, it’s encouraging to hear him say, “I’m hitting the ball hard again” at the start of the next season.

7.
I was bullish on Joe Panik when he was in the minors. I was bullish on him when he was in the majors. I wrote that miserable projection before last year. But it was also bullish!

I don’t see why I should stop now. I’m clearly partial and unreliable, and I encourage you to join me.

Panik is 26. He has one of the best contact swings in the game. It’s unfathomable that a player who strikes out once every 10 plate appearances would have a huge problem getting hits. Better luck and better contact is all he’ll need to be an All-Star-quality player again.

He can be better than he was in 2015, too. He can have a full, healthy season, he can hit for the high average again, and he can mix in the extra home run power from last season. He’ll never be a 25-homer guy, but why not 15? That would be far more than we could have expected when he came up as a fresh-faced Posey clone, straight from the Posey-clone vats.

It’s probably not time to project that just yet. But I’m excited about Joe Panik. Again. Forget what happened last season. Forget several things that happened last season. Joe Panik is going to be healthy and excellent this year.

Joe Panik, 2017 projected
PA: 586
AVG: .302
OBP: .369
SLG: .445
HR: 12
SB: 8
CS: 3
WAR: 4.7

PECOTA has Dustin Pedroia and Nellie Fox as two of his comps, you know. Listen to the computers.