For 31 innings, the Los Angeles Dodgers had looked like the greatest pitching staff of all time. They hadn't allowed a run to start their season and were leading the San Francisco Giants 4-0, poised to spoil the Giants' home opener.
Then the Giants' offense kicked into gear. Or, more specifically, Joe Panik showed why he's a contender to win the batting title.
In the fifth inning, the Giants scraped across one run, and then Panik tripled to deep right-center, just over the glove of a diving Joc Pederson, to bring home a second. Panik later scored as well.
In the sixth, Panik hit a soft blooper to center for an RBI single, and in the eighth, with the Giants up 7-6 and the bases loaded, Panik drilled a line-drive single to right, finishing his three-hit, three-RBI day. Hunter Pence would add a grand slam as the Giants won 12-6.
So, batting title? Sure. Here are four primary reasons why Panik is my choice to win it in the National League:
1. He can hit. Well, yeah, if I'm going to predict him to win a batting title, he better be able to hit for a high average. Panik hit .305 in his rookie season in 2014 after a midseason call-up and .312 last year, although his season ended on Aug. 1 (except for three games in September) because of a back injury. Panik spent the offseason doing a lot of core work and entered spring training feeling 100 percent, so nobody has suggested the back will be an issue.
What's interesting is that the projection systems don't see Panik as a .300 hitter. The two systems used at FanGraphs have him at .277 and .278. Baseball Prospectus forecasts a .270 average. I'm not sure why they're so low on him -- I assume they're putting a heavy factor on his .257 season in Double-A in 2013 -- because I'm buying the results he showed in 2015, when he added more power and improved his strikeout/walk ratio from 33/16 to 42/38.
2. He doesn't strike out. Not only did he walk nearly as often as he struck out last year, but he's a contact guy who puts the ball in play. Among players with at least 300 plate appearances, he had the 10th lowest strikeout rate. If you put the ball in play, you have a chance at a hit. Of the 15 players with the highest contact rate last season, eight of them hit .300.
But he's not hacking up there. Sometimes guys don't strike out much because they swing at everything and just put the ball in play. Panik's chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone was 23.0 percent, which ranked 35th lowest out of 268 batters with 300 PAs. No, he's not as disciplined as Joey Votto, but for the most part he's swinging at strikes.
He seems to know when to be aggressive. His three hits on Thursday all came early in the count, and all came off fastballs: His triple came on the first pitch and his singles came on 1-0 counts, when you're going to see more fastballs.
3. He's difficult to shift against. Because he's pretty good at spraying the ball around the field, you can't really shift against Panik. Here's his hit chart from 2015:
Panik hit .291 against lefties in 2015, so he shouldn't be vulnerable to lefties out of the bullpen. It helps that with Buster Posey and Hunter Pence following him in the lineup, opposing managers are more likely to use a right-handed reliever to get through that part of the order.
4. The park doesn't necessarily hurt him. AT&T Park isn't a good park for runs but that's because it's not a good park for home runs. Over the past three seasons, its ballpark index ranking for batting average for left-handed batters is 100, meaning it's league average in that department. No, it's not like hitting at Coors Field, but you can win a batting title playing your home games there.
Obviously, I'm projecting further improvement for Panik; .312 isn't going to win the title. Dee Gordon hit .333 to win it last year, with Bryce Harper finishing second at .330. The big advantage Gordon has over Panik is speed: He had 36 infield hits, most in the majors, while Panik had just 11 in his 100 games.
And before you write it up on the comments section: I know batting average isn't the best way to evaluate hitting. That's not the point here. But it's still fun to follow the batting race. Just don't be surprised to see Panik atop that leaderboard come October.