I've had this article about San Francisco Giants rookie infielder Joe Panik in the work queue for three weeks now (ask Nick, he's seen it on the list) but I kept putting it off because I wanted just a little bit more data.
From the mailbag on August 8th:
"Rookie Joe Panik is 8-for-13 in his last three games for the Giants. Joe Panik? This is an illusion, right?" Mike the Giants Fan in Rodeo, California
This one has been nagging at me. I kept wondering, how many Giants fans are there named Mike in the Bay Area? Or, when was the last time there was a rodeo in Rodeo? Or, "I'd really rather write something about Andrew Susac." I'll do that soon.
Anyway, I got to thinking about Panik again after reading this Eno Sarris article about Panik at Fangraphs this morning. I note that Sarris tried to slip a reference ("Panik hit the streets of Richmond and the Eastern League") to The Smiths in this one.
I appreciate that. I also don't want Mike the Giants Fan to think I am ignoring his question. Anyway, Panik.
He hit just .257/.333/.347 in the Double-A Eastern League last year, but in the majors he is at .318/.366/.397. How'd that happen?
Here is what I wrote about him in the book this year:
There’s less difference than you might think between Joe Panik’s ’12 and ’13 seasons. His walk rates remained virtually identical despite the improvement in competition, and there was only a small increase in strikeout pace. He lost 15 points of isolated power and 40 points of batting average, but none of the changes were terribly beyond statistical noise. Scouting reports didn’t change much either: he’s a fundamentally sound line drive hitter who makes contact but doesn’t have a ton of power. Moving across the bag last year, he’s quite good at second base and won’t botch the job at shortstop despite a mediocre arm. I’m moving him down a notch since he’s less valuable as a second baseman than as a shortstop, but a rebound season seems plausible to me. Grade C+.
I think this is the rebound season after a bad-luck '13. His BABIP was .285 last year; it is .354 this season. An interesting echo: it was also exactly .354 back in 2011 when he hit .341/.401/.467 in Low-A.
Do I think Joe Panik is "really" a .318 hitter?
If you could take a look at his universal Stratomatic card, I think you'd see that Panik is coded by the baseball gods to hit .270-.280 or so. Given that the scouting reports haven't changed (he is a fundamentally sound line drive hitter who makes contact but lacks power), I don't think anything is seriously surprising here. A guy who "should" hit .270-.280 or so over the long haul can easily hit .318 (or .257) in a partial year, or even a full year, just due to random chance.
As for the future, expect some slippage back towards that estimated baseline but I wouldn't expect him to completely collapse. I have noted in the past that contact hitters like this sometimes show surprising power development in their late 20s. The Sarris article mentioned Marco Scutaro and that is one plausible, if maximal, outcome.