After a very down year in 2016, can San Francisco Giants’ second baseman Joe Panik bounce back in 2017?
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Giants’ second baseman Joe Panik was supposed to be a big part of the offense in 2016. He owned a career .309 average over his first seasons while getting on base at a .364 clip. He was an All-Star in 2015, played Gold Glove defense, and fit perfectly in the second spot in the lineup.
Things didn’t work out as planned. In 2016, Panik slashed .239/.315/.379, all totals well below his career figures. He couldn’t seem to find any kind of rhythm at the plate, and struggled both before and after a concussion suffered in June.
While the concussion, which forced him to miss about a month, likely played a big part in his second-half struggles, his first half was nowhere near his own standards either. He slashed .256/.321/.407 pre-concussion, and .213/.308/.340 post.
The struggles became so bad that by the end of the season, Panik found himself as part of a platoon. He shared second base duties with Kelby Tomlinson, who very much outperformed Panik with the bat.
But entering 2017, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic for the young hitter.
Even with the struggles, he put the ball in play plenty. His 8.9 percent strikeout rate was the lowest among qualified hitters in baseball, and his second consecutive year of striking out in less than 10 percent of his plate appearances. But when he put the ball in play, he didn’t make enough hard contact to be an impactful hitter.
Panik’s line drive rate in 2016 was just 17.5 percent, the 15th-lowest mark in baseball and over five percent lower than his 2015 number. His hard contact rate was 25.7 percent, the ninth-lowest mark in baseball and over four percent lower than 2015. That all equaled out to a .245 BABIP, the second-worst in baseball ahead of only Todd Frazier‘s .236 and 85 points lower than his 2015 total.
The 25-year-old’s plate discipline was not an issue. His strikeouts were obviously way down, partially because he swung at just 23.1 percent of pitches he saw that were out of the strikezone. That was the lowest of his career, and 11th-lowest in the game. He made contact 90 percent of the time he swung, also the best of his career and the fifth-best around the league.
The issue came from what he did with the pitches he put in play. His timing was just so slightly off, especially after the concussion, and he couldn’t drive the ball the way Panik has shown he can. Far too often, Panik would pop one up on the infield or into the shallow outfield. Far too often, he would weakly roll a pitch over, turning it into a groundout to the second baseman.
So as much as luck can be credited (Panik could be called “unlucky” because of his terrible BABIP, and this is partially true), he did himself no favors. The line drives were way down, as was the hard contact. He didn’t use the entire field with the same proficiency. In 2015, Panik went to left field 29.1 percent of the time. In 2016, that went down to 25.9 percent. In 2015, he pulled the ball 33.7 percent of the time. In 2016, that went up to 34.8 percent.
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If Panik can continue to be as selective at the plate as he is, the rest should fall into place. The timing of his swing is the biggest issue. And if the postseason is any indication, Panik may have figured something out late in the year.
Panik went 0-3 in the wildcard game, but had a wonderful at-bat to draw a key walk in the ninth inning to keep the inning moving for Conor Gillaspie, allowing for his heroics. In NLDS game two, Panik slashed a double to left field, going the other way with an outside pitch.
In game three, Panik picked up three hits. Two singles went up the middle before he launched a walk-off double off the wall in right field. He also drew two walks, and hit a one-hop line drive for his only out. In game four, he had two more hits with one going to left field and one to right. Panik also picked up an RBI with a sacrifice fly to left field.
He was using the entire field again. He was fouling off tough pitches, and laying off even tougher ones. Most importantly, he was making loud contact again, shooting line drives all over the place. He was locked in, and looked like the Panik of years prior.
That Panik making a full-time return in 2017 would be a huge boost to the Giants’ lineup. A healthy, strong Panik deepens the order, adding another threat to the starting nine. He also adds versatility to the lineup. He could go back to hitting second, move to third, hit sixth, seventh, the possibilities are endless for a talented bat like Panik’s. Plus, he still flashed some fine leather in 2016.
The skillset is there. The talent is there. Panik can go back to creating havoc for opposing pitchers again with just some slight adjustments.
And hey, building off a career-high 10 home runs from 2016 would be a nice addition as well.