After being called up as a last resort in June of last year, the Giants were just hoping to get some league average production out of the second base slot, and Joe Panik did that. He was the two-hole hitter on a World Series team while slashing .305/.343/.368 with a 107 wRC+. With middle of the pack defense he was a huge improvement from Brandon Hicks, Ehire Adrianza, and Dan Uggla while virtually locking up the starting job for at least the 2015 season.
This year, he has taken two surprising steps forward (FanGraphs):
Among qualified MLB hitters, he ranks:
16th in fWAR
25th in wRC+
35th in OPS
Among second basemen, he ranks:
2nd in fWAR (first in NL)
3rd in wRC+
7th in home runs
11th in UZR/150
The main improvement has been his power. Where did it come from? He was known as a slapper who could hit for a high average with mediocre defense, but after 606 plate appearances in the majors he is showing some major skill. His walk rate has also increased by nearly 5% while his strikeout rate has stayed the same (11%). He already has 20 doubles, which is twice as much as he had last year with similar amount of plate appearances.
His hard hit rate is up from 2014 and he is pulling the ball more often. His line drive rate has remained at 22.8%, but his ground ball rate has decreased from 50.2% to 42.7%, which shows that he is able to yank the ball with more authority.
Check out this spray chart from 2014 and then from 2015. Notice the slight change from the outfield spray. More pull power, especially near the right field line (FanGraphs).
A huge Panik trait is the ability to smash lefties. In 159 PA vs. lefties he is slashing .342/.386/.438 with a 138 wRC+. But against righties he is slashing .295/.353/.406 with a 120 wRC+. Do the Giants have another reverse split hitter? Newly acquired Nori Aoki kills lefties; same goes for Brandon Crawford.
What’s interesting is that pitchers are still throwing Panik hard stuff, even two percent more than last year. According to FanGraphs’ pitch values Panik is destroying fastballs while also improving against sliders. It will be interesting to see how Panik adjusts when he starts seeing less fastballs and more soft stuff, like change-ups/curveballs with bite.