By the looks of things, “2” appears to be Joe Panik’s cosmic number.
He’s the San Francisco Giants’ second baseman, and he’s the No. 2 hitter Joe Panik in the lineup. It’s even on his jersey (albeit, next to a “1”). And based on the continued growth he’s showing in his all-around game in 2016, a strong argument can be made that he is the Giants’ second-best position player.
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The top spot is easy: even when Buster Posey is scuffling through a month, no Giants observer is going to waiver on whether he is the team’s biggest star. After Posey, Hunter Pence would seem to be the obvious choice as the Giants’ second greatest offensive force. It could even be argued that Posey is 1a and Pence is 1b.
But Panik, already a proven .300 hitter coming into the season, is showing a consistency at the plate and uptick in power that, if he continues on his current trajectory, will make him one of the league’s premier table-setters and put him in the argument for best second baseman in baseball (though, ultimately, a tough argument to win).
Panik was already making his case—albeit, quietly—last year. He only played 100 games in 2015, due to a back injury robbing him of all but four games over the last two months of the season. But had he played enough games for his percentage stats to qualify for league-leader honors, and had he maintained his paces, he would have led all Major League second basemen in OPS.
His .833 OPS was higher than what Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano, and National League batting champ Dee Gordon put up last year. Looking at a closely related stat, Panik would have also led all second basemen in on-base percentage. And he was on pace to be among the leaders in runs scored and extra-base hits.
Three-plus weeks into the new season, Panik continues to state his case as he shows gradual improvements one would hope to see from a 25-year-old (but are often absent from less consistent players).
His .284 average is slightly low (for him) but well within the range of variance that can be expected in just 23 games. Meanwhile, his walk rate, which is about one every 11 plate appearances, is the same as last year. What’s more impressive is that he has four doubles, three triples and three home runs, giving him 10 extra-base hits in 23 games, a sign that he is driving the ball more than he did in 2015.
And while he is starting to heat up—four multi-hit games in the last five—he still has a major hot streak or two ahead of him. (He only hit .280 last April before hitting .324 over May and June.)
Twenty-three games is a small sample size, but two-plus seasons is enough to see that Panik is a legitimate .300 hitter with the potential to win a couple batting titles while routinely being among the league leaders in on-base percentage and runs scored.
To be clear: this is not a “right now” argument. Neil Walker is on an unreal home run rampage for the Mets, Daniel Murphy is presently flirting with .400 in Washington, Cano is hitting for the most power since arriving in Seattle, and Arizona’s Jean Segura and Detroit’s Ian Kinsler are having fanastic Aprils. But they all have track records that suggest their hot starts are merely temporary blips.
The one exception is Altuve, who, like Panik, is 25, but has superior speed and is developing some formidable power and has already won a batting title—all of which makes the American Leaguer the undisputed best second baseman in baseball.
Ok, so Panik could be developing into the best second baseman in the National League (and the second-best second baseman overall). But what was that about being the Giants’ second-best offensive player? Is he really better than Pence? It’s a tough argument to make at the moment—they’re probably pretty close, as things stand on April 28—but we’ve probably seen the best of Pence, who’s 33, while Panik will probably continue to get better in the coming months.
Would it be all that surprising if Panik finished the season hitting .320 (as part of a .390 OBP) with 18 home runs, 120 runs scored and nearly 80 RBI? Meanwhile, Pence’s best numbers in each corresponding category since joining the Giants: .283 (.339), 27 HR, 106 R, 99 RBI.
And since posting a career-best .871 OPS in 2011, when he split time between Houston and Philadelphia (two of the most favorable hitter’s parks in MLB), Pence best OPS the .822 he put in 2013. Panik’s 2015 OPS was higher than that, and his 2016 OPS is even higher—even without the support of his usual .300-plus batting average.
So, there you go, the arguments for why he’s on his way to being the best second baseman and the Giants’ second fiddle to Posey.
Wait, what’s that you say? Brandon Belt is looking awfully good right now? Glad you brought it up. We’ll get to that tomorrow. Stay tuned…