SAN FRANCISCO — Every year there are a handful of players who break out the first couple of weeks of April, and every year we must remind ourselves that it’s a long season and April booms almost never last.
But when a player has been an All-Star in the past, boasts elite bat control, just turned 27, and that early hot streak included game-winning homers off Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen of all people, you tend to take it a bit more seriously. That’s why, for the Giants, it was so shocking to look up after 162 games and see second baseman Joe Panik at a .254 batting average, four homers and a .639 OPS that was the lowest of his career by more than 50 points.
Panik tried not to take a peek at where he was at. He saves reflection for the offseason, but it’s hard to avoid the numbers staring down at you from the scoreboard every night.
“I know what type of hitter I am,” Panik said last week. “The numbers are what they are, but it’s not even close to where I want to be.”
Panik felt strong during the spring and felt he was right where he needed to be. When he provided all the offense in the first two wins of the season, he looked poised for his best year, and when he went deep in the homer opener, 15-20 homers didn’t seem outlandish.
He has always had a feel for the strike zone, and even this year, his worst in the big leagues, he led the National League with a strikeout rate of just 7.7 percent. It’s quite common for players with a gifted hit tool to pick up power as they mature, but Panik ended up with just one more homer the rest of the way.
The slowdown started near the end of April, and on April 27 he suffered a sprained thumb on a tag play at second, missing more than a month. Panik made it back ahead of the training staff’s expectations, but he never found his rhythm. He was further set back by a groin strain that cost him 17 games in July.
“Once I went down with the thumb, I feel like I could just never get it back,” Panik said. “It’s hard to explain to people … when your season is kind of choppy and broken up, it’s hard to sometimes find your rhythm. But when it comes down to it, you still have to find a way.”
As the Giants sit down and try to figure out how to avoid a repeat of 2018, perhaps they should make note of that feeling. Brandon Belt also said he struggled to find his rhythm after getting hurt, and maybe there’s an adjustment to be made in how quickly the Giants get players back into their big league lineups. They have favored shorter rehab assignments, but that doesn’t seem to be working.
Panik has his own adjustments to make. He said he would consult with hitting coach Alonzo Powell to see if there are swing changes he should work on, perhaps bigger ones that couldn’t be implemented in-season as he suffered through slumps. Panik hopes that work continues next spring in Scottsdale, but he also understands that he is in a unique position among Giants position players.
The catcher, first baseman, shortstop and third baseman are locked into long-term deals. The center fielder is a rookie. The corner outfield spots are open.
Panik, the Giants’ second baseman since 2014, is entering his second year of arbitration. He made $3.45 million last year and should get into the $5 million range. That is not expensive, but it’s possible that a new general manager will decide to shift that money elsewhere.
Asked about Panik and other arb-eligible Giants, vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean declined to go into detail, saying those are decisions for the next head of baseball operations.
Panik has thought about his future at times. When Bobby Evans was fired, he did find himself thinking that some things are going to change. He said he’ll see where the chips fall, but added that he would like to stay here.
“It’s all about whoever comes in and who they feel is the best fit for the organization going forward,” he said. “You hope it’s you, but at the end of the day, it’s not your call.”