Joe Panik and the Case of Disappearing Line Drive

After a great 2015 season which saw Joe Panik make the All-Star team, the Giants’ second baseman and former first-round pick has had a relatively dismal year at the plate in 2016. Last season he hit .312/.378/.455 with a modest 136 wRC+, and this year he hit .239/.315/.379 with a below average 89 wRC+. Before the season started, projection systems expected him to regress slightly as Panik benefited from a high .330 BABIP in 2015 but not to this level.

Still, the Yankees would have taken him for Andrew Miller. Panik has been a valuable player posting a 2.1 fWAR mostly because of his defense, so this hasn’t been a lost season by any means. He is recovering from a back injury that sidelined him for the last few months of 2015 and a concussion that put him on the DL just before this year’s All-Star break so that would explain some of his troubles, but perhaps not all of it. Has something changed about his approach, or is he merely unlucky?

It doesn’t appear that other teams have identified a weakness. Pitchers have largely approached Panik the same compared to last season. The only perceptible changes being a slight downtick in cutters and a slight uptick in curveballs. Teams are shifting on him more this year compared to 2015. This season, defenses have employed a shift on him 38 times compared to just 12 last year, but he’s actually hit better against the shift (.263) than against no shift at all (.238).

When players run into funks, often they’ll try to overcompensate at the plate. They’ll begin swinging at more pitches, which only exacerbates the problem. Swinging at more pitches often means swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone. However, Panik hasn’t changed much about his approach. In fact, his discipline has improved if anything. He took more walks this year and at a higher rate as his BB rate rose from 8.8% to 9.5%. He’s striking out less, but only slightly. His swing percentages have remained consistent. The only difference between this year and last year is that he swung on more 3-0 counts, putting the ball in play eleven times on 3-0 counts, but that only benefitted him as he hit .400 on 3-0 counts with a sacrifice fly, a triple, and a homerun.

If he’s seeing the same kinds of pitches, swinging at them at the same rate and consistently making contact, then the only difference must be in what actually happens when he puts the ball in play. Last season, when Panik put the ball in play, good things tended to happen, but this year it hasn’t been the same story. His BABIP has dropped from .330 all the way down to .245. This year, in around the same amount of ABs, Alexei Ramirez had a similar batting average to Panik at .241 but a higher BABIP at .259. So there’s credence to the argument that Joe Panik has been somewhat unlucky.

Looking at his batted ball percentages, the largest change is the drop in line drives. Last season, Panik hit liners on 23% of his balls put in play. This season, that number has dropped to 17.5%. His fly ball percentage has gone up from 33.8% to 37% while his HR/FB ratio has stayed the same. He’s also popping more balls up compared to last season. He’s getting under the ball, hitting fewer line drives, and putting more balls in the air with less authority. The difference between his average in 2015 compared to 2016 is roughly 7% more hits and he’s hit nearly 6% less line drives. The drop in line drives explains some of the drop in average but it doesn’t explain all of it.

Though he’s not helping himself out by hitting line drives at a below average rate, his batting average on line drives has also dropped. His average on line drives has dropped from .684 to .548. Again, this is pointing more toward luck because other hitters tend to stay closer to the .684 number rather than the low end. The fact that he’s been hitting line drives at a lower rate and more of them have been caught have combined to lower the overall production of the burgeoning second baseman.

Don’t expect Panik to eclipse his 2015 season. That level of production is probably as high as he goes. But this year has been an anomaly, too. He’s not hitting the ball as hard, but he’s also hitting into more bad luck.