The San Francisco Giants offense took some lumps last year. A Posey power-outage in the second half didn’t help. Pence was often injured, and Denard Span was a below average run producer according to wRC+. Joe Panik might have been the most important cog that wasn’t producing at their expected level.
Through spring training this year, one thing has really jumped out to me and that was the glimmer of a return to normal for Panik. Panik’s numbers this spring don’t jump off the page at you. However, they are better than his career averages in spring. We all know his regular season numbers. Last season, it was so bad that he dropped his career average nearly 20 points.
It felt weird last year. Panik was returning from some back issues, which still plagued him even into the regular season. And just as we saw him getting it back together, Matt Moore plunked him in the head, and he goes out with a concussion. After that point it got even worse. It never impacted his defense though, as he deservedly won a gold glove for his stellar play at second base. However the Giants really missed that hitting in their lineup.
The Giants struggled to find someone else who could fit into that “two-hole” in the lineup. They stuck Brandon Belt there, and it worked out pretty good. But then that took away some clout from the middle of their lineup. Belt struggled mightily in the second half of the season as well, and seemed to turn it around when placed second in the lineup. But as we fixate back to Panik, it’s time we understood what went wrong last year, look at where he needs to improve.
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What went wrong with Panik last year? Despite the obvious issues of a concussion and not really being healthy to start the season, there was something missing in his plate approach. As we look at the numbers, Fangraphs gives us a good look at everything from swinging at certain pitches, to contact levels, and more. Let’s take a look at what it says simply about his strikeout rate. In 2014 his K% was 11.4, in 2015 it was 9.7, and last year it was 8.9!
So every season so far, Panik has improved his K-rate. If he wasn’t striking out more, then what was the issue? Take a look at his BABIP, or batting average on balls in play. If you aren’t familiar with it, it tracks how many times you reach safely when you put the ball in play. In 2014 it was .343. in ’15 it was .330. That might look like a bit of a decline, but it’s also a larger sample size then 2014.
That decline could easily be categorized as a regression to the mean. Here is the big kick though: in 2016 Joe Panik’s BABIP sat at .245. That’s not a regression to the mean. That’s a complete anomaly compared to what he’s shown in the past. So he’s striking out less, and if you look at his contact rate, it was at 90% of his swings, an increase ever year since 2014. So he’s hitting the ball more often, striking out less, and somehow isn’t getting as many hits. So let’s dive deeper.
I decided to make a nifty chart for you too see all the things I’m looking at. All of these numbers are from Fangraphs, as mentioned before.
In trying to ascertain why his BABIP Dipped, I thought it might be worth it to take a look at his contact types. The big thing that stands out to me was the jump in medium strength contact, and the 5% dip in hard contact. Then the question there is how does he hit the ball harder again?
Well, if he’s going to hit the ball harder, his timing simply has to improve. Once that gets fixed, and he is back to 2015 All-Star Joe Panik, how much of a bump does that give the Giants run production? his wRC+ in 2015 was a 136, and an 89 last season. That should tell you enough. wRC+ uses a measurement to calculate how good somebody is at creating runs. In that stat, 100 is considered league average. Every digit above 100 is 1% above league average. So 36% above league average.
To go from 36% above league average, to 11% below league average is almost too significant a swing to hold true. Even if he goes up to maybe 110, that’s good enough for them I think. It’s hard to say Joe Panik is going to be 2015 good every year. While that would be nice, it’s unlikely.
Joe Panik is going to return to normal this year. All the signs are there. His swing timing was back in the postseason, and has looked pretty good so far. If he can continue to get better, and get off to a good start come opening day, his boost to the lineup will have a significant boost to their run production.