By at least one stat, Giants rookie second baseman Joe Panik is top-two at his position in the National League. Look at his numbers coming up, and this seems about what you might expect. It turns out that, while he’s had to adjust to the big leagues, much of his current success can be attributed to not changing.
To some, this breakout might be a surprise despite the nice batting averages in the minor leagues. Panik was never a top-100 prospect on any list, despite being a first-round draft pick. Writeups focused on his lack of range at shortstop, his lack of power, and his possible lack of position.
Panik shrugged that lack of attention off. “That’s just the type of player I am. I just try to stay within my physical limitations so to speak,” the second baseman said earlier this week. “I know what type of hitter I am.”
When asked to describe what sort of hitter he is, Panik doesn’t hesitate. “I’m a line drive hitter and I know that if I get the ball up in the air I know it’ll go,” he said. “I’m not one of those guys that will try to hit home runs, I’m one of those guys that tries to get the ball in play, shoot from line to line and hope good things happen.”
Panik’s current zone contact rate would be top ten in the league if he qualified, so he’s going a good job of making contact here at the big league level. And it’s the kind of package that can lead to good batting averages, when the batted ball luck keeps up its side of the bargain. Right now, his .351 batting average on balls in play mirrors the BABIP tallies he posted in the minor leagues…most years.
In 2013, Panik hit the streets of Richmond and the Eastern League. His first taste of the high minors didn’t go so well, as he hit .257/.333/.347 and was moved to second base. Never mind that his BABIP was under .300 for the first time, or that he was playing in a pitcher’s park in a pitcher’s league, there was still a lot to learn for the player in that down year. “I had some frustrations with balls in play and I just told myself, just stick with your approach and don’t change what you do, and if you get away from that you just spiral down,” Panik said of that time.
That approach hasn’t changed at all. Listen to Panik talk to Carson Cistulli about his approach against that night’s starter in the minors — Marcus Stroman. He talks about being aggressive in order to stay out of two-strike counts, when the breaking pitches can come out.
What would he do now? “If he’s a power pitcher, you try to attack early and get that fastball — unless you know the guy has a tendency to throw his slider early, then you have to adjust your approach from there,” says Panik now. In general that’s his belief: “I always believe that at some point, you’ll get the fastball, and you just have to be ready for it. If you have the right approach to the fastball, you can always adjust to the offspeed.” Currently, Panik’s best work comes against the fastball.
Of course, none of this is to say that Panik hasn’t changed. The majors had something to teach him, particularly about how pitchers’ work. “They’ll change up their patterns on you, they won’t stick to one thing,” Panik said of big league pitchers. “They’ll throw any pitch at any time.”
Larger repertoires with more command is part of it, but mentality and game theory also come into play. “Just because they get you out one way, they could change that up and work backwards next time,” Panik said about the game within the game. “They keep you on your toes, and it makes you stick to your approach and don’t deviate from it.”
‘Sticking to his approach,’ means, basically, to keep waiting on the fastball — “”Eventually you’ll get the pitch you’re looking for, you just have to be ready for it” he said. But sometimes it means missing on purpose.
When told that Marco Scutaro once said that he wished he would make less contact sometimes, Panik nodded. “Our minor league hitting coordinator said ‘It’s a very good thing, but it can be a bad thing too.'” He pointed out he’d rather miss an offspeed pitch in zero or one strike counts in particular, and that one adjustment he’s made to his approach is to miss those pitches when he has a hitter’s count.
“I’ve been learning to continue my fastball mentality and swing as if it’s a fastball — if it’s a breaking ball, say with no strikes or one strike, just keep that fastball mentality and swing through it,” the second baseman said. “Then when you get to two strikes, it’s a whole new mentality.”
Once again, Panik returns to knowing himself and sticking with his approach, but he’s glad he has more tools here in San Francisco. Particularly when it comes to research, since he’s never seen these pitchers before. “The biggest thing for me is to look at video and see what their fastball does — cut or run — and the location and type of the breaking pitches, arm angle and general location of where they like to throw. Some guys will go straight in and out, and some guys will work one side of the plate.”
These tools “give you the best chance possible,” so Panik will use them to game plan. But he won’t stray too far from his approach that has gotten him this far. Perhaps it’s just now, in the face of record strikeout rates, that we can better appreciate him for who he is.
“I know I’m not a flashy type of ballplayer — I’m a grinder, I’m solid,” says Joe Panik. “I’m not going to put up 30 home runs. I go out there every day, working the count, battling pitchers and getting on base. All you need is your front office guys to believe in you and thank God for the opportunity.”
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.