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Joe Panik is the only young player in the Giants’ lineup, so let’s see if he improves

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Everyone else in the starting lineup is a known quantity. It’s harder to project Panik.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Panik is just 27 years old. Theoretically, he should be just entering his prime. The only problem with that theory is that it’s possible that he has already left his prime.

Consider Panik’s All-Star season in 2015:

.312 BA
.378 OBP
.455 SLG

That came with stellar defense at second, too. Considering that he was just 24, it wasn’t implausible to hope that he’d improve. Maybe a few more doubles here, some extra walks there, and he’s something more than a nice player to have. He’s someone who’s crucial to his team’s blueprint.

After that season, though, he followed up with this:

.239 BA
.315 OBP
.379 SLG

It was an absolutely brutal follow-up season, and even though it came with an unexpected Gold Glove, suddenly it wasn’t just implausible for Panik to improve; it was implausible that he’d ever be that good again. I remember thinking last year that we’d seen the best of him after his first half, when he hit a relatively disappointing .274/.335/.403. I was pretty sure that was just who Joe Panik was. Didn’t hit for enough average to be Ichiro, didn’t walk enough to pump the OBP up, and would never hit for even Bill Mueller power. But, all things considered, someone who was good to have around.

Then he hit .308/.365/.477 in the second half, including a torrid finish to the season (.344/.402/.490 over the final two months), that showed us all what it looked like when Panik was kicking butts. It looked like lot of line drives hit all over the place, and if you wanted to be even more impressed, note that he walked 17 times and struck out just seven times in those 174 plate appearances.

That’s the part that makes me think there’s more than Panik than his career .753 OPS: his bat control and patience. Just because a hitter doesn’t strike out doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to be a productive hitter. Jeff Keppinger didn’t strike out, either, and it’s not like his bat was unstoppable. Norichika Aoki was extremely hard to strike out, but he was always the same hitter, every year. For two straight years, Panik has led the NL in at-bats per strikeout, nearly walking as much over that stretch as he’s struck out, but that doesn’t have to mean he’s guaranteed to become something more.

Still, the ability to control the strike zone makes me optimistic because it’s a rare skill. He’s the best in the league at something right now, and that something happens to be what all hitters are trying to do. He’s swinging at good pitches and laying off lousy pitches. When he’s off, he’ll do the reverse (which he did in his awful July), but when he’s right and walking more than he’s striking out, it’s a beautiful thing.

Like Brandon Belt, Panik will continue to be underrated because he’s a left-handed hitter at AT&T Park. I’ll guess there are at least five more home runs on this FanGraphs spray chart if he’s playing in a normal ballpark:

Even without any ballpark help, though, I’m bullish. He hits line drives, and he doesn’t take stupid swings. Gimme that player every time.

Except, I was bullish last year, too:

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.

And he had what was essentially his 2015 and 2016 mashed together into a boring-if-useful player. That he had some ludicrous hot and cold streaks doesn’t change his overall season, which was Fine, Just Fine. Maybe it’s time to stop looking for more from Panik and start expecting his career numbers, which is exactly what he put up last year. It’s probably time to be a little modest and be happy with what he is, even if it would be a bummer if 2015 wasn’t a vision of the future. I was really expecting it to be.

But I do know one thing: I don’t trust the stupid defensive stats that said he was an awful defender last year. He was fine. He’s always fine. It’s the stupid stats that are stupid.

Here are some more stupid stats:

Joe Panik, projected 2018
AB: 633
AVG: .288
OBP: .353
SLG: .418
HR: 11
SB: 8
rWAR: 2.4

Eight stolen bases, you cry? Yes, but mostly because there’s a non-zero chance that Panik is the leadoff hitter, and after he gets on base, he’ll think something like, “Uh, wait, what was I supposed to do again?” Run wild and run free, Joe Panik.

And maybe hit a few more dingers while you’re at it.