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Joe Panik is our litmus test

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How you feel about his 2019 season will tell everyone a lot about how you think the Giants’ season overall will go.

MLB: San Francisco Giants-Media Day Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Panik was the youngest player in the lineup last Opening Day, and the youngest player to receive nearly 400 plate appearances. He’ll be 28 years old when Opening Day arrives this year, but the idea that his prime years are happening right now and we should be looking forward to what’s about to come has taken a hit thanks to everything that’s happened since his breakout 2015.

Of course, he began last season carrying the team. Two solo home runs beat the Dodgers in back to back games, and a third solo home run three games later in the Giants’ home opener against the Mariners represented the team’s sole runs through the first 22 innings of the season. Yes, that was damning of the team overall, but also a spark of hope that wasn’t easily extinguished despite Panik’s performance plumming immediately thereafter.

After being the lineup hero through the team’s first five games, Panik’s April looked like this:

.225 / .291 / .254 in 79 plate appearances with 5 walks, 5 strikeouts, and 2 GIDPs. His batting average on balls in play was an abysmal .239.

And then he missed the month of May with a sprained thumb after running into Yasiel Puig on a pickoff play.

But after returning at the start of June and going .218 / .298 / .309 in 124 plate appearances with 12 walks, 7 strikeouts, and 2 GIDPS and a BABip of .223, he went down again with a groin injury. By then, his starting role had been diminished by the relative emergence of Alen Hanson (who hit .298 / .346 / .638 with 4 home runs through part of Panik’s absence in May), and it became clear that Joe Panik’s All-Star 2015 season was the outlier.

In last year’s community projection, Grant noted:

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.

Nothing else about that optimistic projection wound up coming true except for that.

Joe Panik rarely swings and misses. Since 2016, he’s second in all of baseball with a strikeout rate of just 8.8% (for context, Buster Posey is 10th at 11.5%), and last year, his 7.7% rate was in the top 1% of the league. However, he also has the 35th-worst BABip — .272 — over the last three seasons.

If you’re looking at a player with a sub-.300 batting average on balls in play, the first thought is usually, “Well, the player’s a bit unlucky.” Luck ceases to be a factor after 1,000 plate appearances. It’s true that Joe Panik is one tough dude to strike out and he doesn’t miss when he swings, but it’s also true that when he makes contact, it’s not very hard. The MLB average barrel rate was around 6%. Joe Panik’s was 2.7%.

And then there’s the matter of his defense, which is still pretty solid, but not spectacular. Since 2016, he ranks 7th in baseball for second baseman with a +9.9 in FanGraphs’ Def stat, but last year alone, he was merely 23rd-best with a +1.6 — average, but clearly a number in decline. He’s had eight trips to the injured list in his career — thumb and groin last year, concussion and back problems before that — and there’s only so much wear and tear an athlete can experience before there’s permanent skill erosion.

A player doesn’t have to be a metaphor for his team, but Joe Panik fits the description. Here was a properly rated middling prospect who overperformed early in his career before settling in to some version of either his originally projected/scouted peak or worst outcome thanks to a steady stream of injuries and the league changing how the game is played to the point that his skill set loses virtually all his effectiveness. The Giants were a team that confounded all expectations by being greater than the sum of their parts, too. Panik was initially another prospect success story seemingly in defiance of the industry’s projection.

Either side of the optimism / pessimism debate that occurs within every fandom finds itself well-stocked here. Joe Panik is young-ish and was very good not too long ago, and if he stays healthy, he has the chance to really bounce back and be effective. Or, Joe Panik’s an injury-riddled middle infielder whose slowly degrading defense since that Gold Glove year and dwindling power and speed numbers reveal an empty contact hitter who can’t actually get hits.

The Giants are either a veteran team that just needs a little injury luck to demonstrate that the assembled talent is still capable of a bounce back or it’s an injured and old mess of a roster already well beyond its best days. If you think Joe Panik’s not going to be who he looked like he was going to be, then you probably feel the ample evidence since the second half of 2016 tells you all you need to know about the 2019 Giants. If you think Joe Panik can have a good season, then you probably feel the Giants are due for a similar positive regression to the mean.

Projection

PA: 400
AVG: .278
OBP: .330
SLG: .390
HR: 4
SB: 4
bWAR: 1.1

Here I am somewhat splitting the difference. A win above replacement is nothing special, but after a lost 2018, (-0.1 bWAR and 0.1 fWAR), I’m still going to project a 28 year old middle infielder with strong control of the strike zone will at least be able to put up an echo of his last 1-win season, 2017 (.288 / .347 / .421 with 10 home runs). The bulk of his value will still come from defense.

Traded?

As part of this year’s community projections series, I’ve asked the staff to consider whether or not this player will survive Farhan Zaidi’s first season. Joe Panik has already come up in trade rumors this offseason, so it feels like a safe bet that he’ll be moved if he’s productive.

He could be a solid injury replacement for a team in the hunt or a nice depth piece for, like, the A’s — insurance in case another player fades. Yangervis Solarte, Breyvic Valera, and Alen Hanson can combine to at least duplicate Panik on paper, but it wouldn’t feel great, even if it made sense. Joe Panik was a part of the most successful era in San Francisco Giants history and for all my ranting and ravings about how we’re already well past that moment in time, trading him would truly and finally signal to everyone who roots for the team the end of that era. I project a total bummer mood when that happens.

Oh, and here’s that nifty category breakout for you to copy/paste into the thread for your own projection:

PA:
AVG:
OBP:
SLG:
HR:
SB:
bWAR: