Joe Panik has heard the puns for years: Panik Attack, Panik Button, Panik at the Frisco. But one variation seems to have stuck more than the others for the Giants' second baseman. “Don’t Panik,” which has become popular with T-shirt designers and headline writers throughout the Bay Area, is an obvious pun, but Panik embodies the catchphrase almost perfectly. “I try not to get too high or too low in this game,” he says, “because some days you’re going to be humbled, and there are days you’re going to feel like you’re on top of the world.”
For a 24-year-old in only his second major league season, Panik offers an awfully steady presence. He’s hitting .306, eighth in the NL, and has collected at least one hit in 47 of his last 53 games. He is first among big league second basemen in OPS+ (133) and third in Baseball-Reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement (2.8). Only a year into his career, Panik is on his way to his first All-Star Game after having been selected as a reserve by San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy.
“He’s such a solid player on both sides,” Bochy says. “He quietly goes about his business, and you look at the numbers, and they’re pretty impressive.”
Success has come quickly and unexpectedly to Panik. The Giants drafted him 29th overall in 2011 out of St. John's University, and within three years, he became the starting second baseman on their most recent World Series championship club. That's all the more impressive considering he never made a top-100 prospect list for either Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus, and when he was called up to the majors last June, it was only because San Francisco’s situation at second base was desperate; incumbent starter Marco Scutaro was on the disabled list and both Brandon Hicks and Ehire Adrianza were posting sub-.600 OPS over the season’s first 2 1/2 months.
Over his first five weeks in the majors, Panik received limited time and did little with it. When his batting average fell toward the Mendoza Line in late July, the Giants signed Dan Uggla to play second and benched the rookie. When Uggla didn’t hit, the team summoned Matt Duffy from the minors, giving Panik sporadic starts. But his season turned around on Aug. 4, when he collected three hits in a win over the Mets. “The series before, something clicked in my swing, and I kind of just built momentum off of that,” he says. “Everything just kind of calmed down, and I was able to take control, and the rest took care of itself.”
Over the season’s final 49 games, Panik started 45 times and batted .345 with a .797 OPS, earning him a sixth-place finish in NL Rookie of the Year voting. He became an integral part of San Francisco's unexpected title run, too, batting second in the lineup throughout the playoffs. Though he hit only .233 during the postseason, he contributed three extra-base hits in the World Series and made a critical defensive play in Game 7. With the score tied 2–2 and the Giants having already gone to their bullpen, the Royals put their leadoff man aboard in the third inning. Eric Hosmer then hit a ground ball up the middle, but Panik made a diving stab and flipped the ball to shortstop Brandon Crawford to start a double play. Kansas City didn't score again and the Giants, thanks largely to five innings of shutout relief from Series MVP Madison Bumgarner, won 3–2.
Panik returned to a hero’s welcome in his hometown of Hopewell Junction, N.Y., as he was honored by the town and his high school, as well as at St. John’s. The suddenness of his stardom jolted even his family. “It’s almost like an out-of-body experience,” says his father, Paul. “You remember him on the high school field, on the college field, and now all of a sudden, you’re seeing him on the biggest stage.”
Fresh off his star turn, Panik has flashed across-the-board improvement in 2015. While his batting average is virtually identical to the .305 mark he posted a year ago, his on-base percentage and slugging percentage are both up significantly, and he’s smacked more than twice as many doubles and drawn almost twice as many walks. After hitting only one home run as a rookie, meanwhile, Panik has bashed six this year. “This year, I might not be as openly aggressive [at the plate],” he says. “I’m able to do a better job of hitting my pitch. Especially early on last year, I feel like I was trying to do too much, and that’s going to lead to more strikeouts and less walks. This year, I kind of just came in and started where I left off last year.”
And at only 24 years old, there’s still room to grow. “As you get older,” Panik says, “you understand your swing better, you understand pitchers better, you understand the game better. You’re always learning.”
But no ascension is linear, and Panik’s season has seen some dips as he faces a league full of pitchers seeking to pinpoint his weaknesses. Since he pushed his batting average to a season-high .324 with a three-hit game against the Mets on June 10, he's hit a more pedestrian .256/.333/.351 in 105 plate appearances, and he hasn't homered in almost a month.
Still, after a full season’s worth of plate appearances at the major league level, Panik boasts a .306/.359/.409 slash line, and his stardom looks more legitimate by the day. Barely four years after being drafted and just one after debuting in the bigs as an untouted fill-in, Panik has a World Series ring on his resume and a place on the short list of the game’s best second basemen.