Joe Panik is better than I thought

Late in spring training, San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik was hitting .160. He wasn't worried.

"I've just got to trust the process," Panik told Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News. "Obviously as a competitor, you want to get hits. You want to produce. But you're here to get physically and mentally ready for opening day. ... I know what kind of hitter I am. So I'm not the least bit concerned."

Fast-forward to June 1 and Panik isn't only hitting, he's hitting better than anyone -- except maybe he -- could have expected. He's hitting .300/.373/.450 with four home runs, 11 doubles and close to as many walks (20) as strikeouts (26). As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote today, Panik is now the second Giants middle infielder having a big season at the plate, joining shortstop Brandon Crawford:

Crawford, now, is one of the best shortstops in baseball, provided the season doesn’t wear him down. But any attention paid to Crawford is attention not paid to Panik. And while Panik didn’t begin his big-league career in the same sort of way, he’s also reaching a level at the plate few would’ve imagined. Joe Panik isn’t just a slap hitter. Joe Panik is a genuine threat!

Panik came up last June and hit .305, although it was a pretty empty .305 with just one home run and only 16 walks in 287 plate appearances. It's the kind of profile that leads to a player to be a drastically overrated. Personally, I had some doubts whether Panik was even a legitimate .300 hitter. True, he hit .321 at Triple-A Fresno before his recall, but everyone hits at Fresno and Panik had hit just .257 the year before in Double-A. ZiPS projected Panik with a .264/.316/.344 batting line -- more like a second-division regular than a starter on a playoff contender.

However, the one thing Panik did have was good contact skills. But would Panik learn to translate that skill into more power or better selectivity at the plate? He has thus far. In fact, he's become a much different hitter than last season, when he ranked in the first percentile in the majors in the number of fly balls he pulled. Now he's in the 64th percentile, while also hitting more fly balls than a year ago. From Jeff's piece:

Panik went from one of the lowest rates in baseball to a rate comfortably in the upper half. A year ago, Panik just about never pulled a fly ball. Now he still doesn't do it frequently, but he does it way more. I know all about the nature of the small samples, but I can't not be interested in swings of that magnitude.

Here's the comparison between 2014 and 2015 via his hit chart:

Of course, it's only two months, but Panik's improvement looks legit. You can see more balls pulled with authority to right-center and right field. His walk rate has improved from 5.6 percent to 9.7 percent. It's amazing what can happen when you do a better job controlling the strike zone. Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens (give that man a raise!) has also worked similar magic with Crawford, a light-hitting shortstop when first called up, but a player who has improved his OPS each season in the majors, from .584 to .653 to .674 to .713 to this year's hot start at .877.

I don't know if Panik will slug .450 all season, but this isn't just a fluke. He's better than expected.