Joe Panik Changes By Not Really Changing At All

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.”

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

20 Responses to “Joe Panik Changes By Not Really Changing At All”

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  1. Bob says:

    Panik seems like a younger version of Marco Scutaro. He’s an ideal #2 hitter as his high contact rates will allow Bruce Bochy to be more aggressive with hit-and-run plays.

    What do you think of Andrew Susac’s success? It seems he has out-performed expectations as well, although the usual cavaet of small sample-size applies.

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    • Hurtlocker says:

      Both Panik and Susac can rake, hope they can keep it up.

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    • pitnick says:

      Susac’s minor league numbers were always pretty good and the projection systems always seemed to like him pretty well. He won’t keep up a 148 wRC+, but it’s not like his success is totally out of nowhere. Not sure why he never ranked higher as a prospect.

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    • Henry Newhouse says:

      An ideal #2 hitter gets on base, putting the ball in play is less important than not hitting into an out.

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      • soothsayer says:

        I there a spot in the lineup where this is not true…

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      • Hopefully at some point Panik and bring that part of the game to the majors, he’s had great BB/K ratios all the way up to the majors, and if he can continue to make good contact and then add in the ways, his OBP would be very good.

        But to the point of the other commenter, that’s important at any spot in the lineup. Plus, if you are going to nitpick, not MAKING an out is more important, someone who strikes out a lot would not be hitting into an out either.

        And some studies on lineup construction find that putting one of your better hitters 2nd is a best practice. That would make, say, Belt, who gets on base and hits for power, better suited for batting 2nd, per that finding.

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  2. channelclemente says:

    Panik is the sort of player who could be the cure to baseball’s offensive decline, if you except the cause as outlined in today’s Atlantic.

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  3. Witchgrass says:

    Thanks for these quotes – sounds like he pairs a good attitude with a good plate approach. I’ve really been enjoying watching him play baseball

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  4. LaLoosh says:

    I see what you did there with that titleā€¦.

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  5. walt526 says:

    Panik’s not as good as his 2014 MLB stat line, but he should be a solid contributor at 2B (~2 wins). Basically, second coming of Bill Mueller.

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  6. Shankbone says:

    Panik’s elite contact rate was his carrying tool. BB/K ratios that were excellent throughout definitely look good. The doubt might come from pitchers disrespecting his power and challenging. So far he’s done way better than expected at the only level that counts. Its a pretty fun story. I remember watching Selig butcher his name, the MLB network analysts scramble around for something to say and liking that pick. He’s a solid ballplayer. We’ll see if he can hit .300 regular. If so, he’s a huge steal with the 29th pick of the draft. Always liked the St John’s guys (Mark Jackson, Rich Aurilia) who weren’t the best athletes but always got themselves in position to make the play. Nice article Eno.

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  7. Mantlefan728 says:

    I was waiting for someone to do an article on Panik. Easily one of the most consistent hitters throughout the month of August.

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  8. Mantlefan728 says:

    Also, does he have enough of a sample size to get some NL ROY votes?

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    • Big Six says:

      Nah. He’ll finish with less than a half season’s worth of at-bats. The ROY is basically Billy Hamilton’s to lose.

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    • I was going to say no, but noticed that you said “gets some votes” and not “win”, and I would have to agree, I think he will get some votes, especially if he continues to hit this well and finish the season hitting so well.

      Particularly since Hamilton has not been hitting well, heck, his OBP is so abysmal, his only plus looks like his speed, and I suppose his defense.

      Another reason I was going to say no was because of his total playing time, but he’s going to get close to 300 PA by the time the season is over, that’s probably the over/under with 22 games left, which is nearly half a season. And if he’s sporting the same or better batting line plus helps the Giants win the NL West division, I don’t see why he won’t get even more than some NL ROY votes.

      And we have a historical example of a player winning with few PA, Willie Mac won the ROY with just barely over 200 PA, so it is possible, though now over 50 years ago, and different writers now. Plus he was a power hitter and went 4 for 4 with two triples in his first game, against Robin Roberts, while Panik is more of a regular Joe who is greater than the sum of his talents.

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  9. Great article on a sleeper of a prospect that most did not give a chance to. Though to be fair, still early days yet (I can still recall the rush I felt when Larry Herndon and Dan Gladden came up and did great: for one partial season).

    He’s forever linked in Giants history with Kyle Crick because most of the draft experts said that had they been swapped off, the experts would have approved (i.e. Crick selected first, Panik selected where Crick was), so many were disdainful of the selection of Panik. One has consistently labeled Panik a utility player.

    But he’s the type of player competitive teams often end up with because of their poor draft position: guys with some skills but need to prove it at every level. He’s done that at every level and earned the opportunity to prove it at the MLB level. And so far, so very good, he’s providing a lift similar to what Scutaro did in 2012, hitting great in the 2-spot with decent defense, and as noted in this article, his BABIP is not that far off from what he had in the minors, plus his high contact rate and OK BB/W ratio aligns well with his high batting average, that’s what high contact hitters who can take a walk can hit.

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