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Joe Panik is going to turn things around in 2017

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Expect much better results from the Giants second baseman.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik had terrible results in 2016. As a group, the keystone had never been better than last season, and yet, among the 21 second basemen to qualify for the batting title, only Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison had a worse wRC+ than Panik’s 89.

Notice, however, I didn’t write “nobody was worse than Joe Panik…” Yes, his batting average fell 73 points. His slugging percentage fell by nearly 20 percent compared to 2015. He was worse, objectively, but that hardly tells the whole story of Panik’s struggles.

It’s disappointing when a player follows up a great season with a bad one. We look for some reason for the decline; the player must not have worked as hard during the offseason, or something like that. (Hopefully he’ll come back in the Best Shape Of His Life next year!) Panik sustained a concussion in June that he (unwisely) tried to play through, but while that undoubtedly affected his season, he wasn’t performing well pre-concussion either. No, in Panik’s case, there’s a totally mundane explanation for his poor 2016: Terrible luck on balls in play completely crushed his stat line.

In 2015 — Panik’s breakout season — his BABIP was .330, right around his career mark in the minor leagues. He didn’t hit for a ton of power, still, but between those strong batted-ball numbers and his stellar K/BB ratio, he was able to parlay his offensive success into a four-win season. You could have easily made the case that, on a per-plate-appearance basis, Panik was the best second baseman in the National League that year.

But in 2016, Panik’s BABIP went in the tank, cratering to .245, the second-worst figure among qualified hitters. Of course, unlike most of the players around him on the bottom of that list, Panik’s poor BABIP wasn’t supplemented by putting a bunch of balls over the fence.

So here we are, less than 300 words into this post, and we’ve already reached the conclusion: Joe Panik will be significantly better in 2017 because there is almost no way his BABIP will be that low again. Still, let’s look at why, despite what the numbers may tell us, Panik may actually have been just as good last year as he was in 2015.

First, he hit the ball about as hard as he did the year before, losing only 0.4 MPH (87.0 to 86.6). That’s a negligible difference and a sign that Panik was still barreling the ball at a similar rate. Neither figure is especially impressive — the Major League average in 2016 was 89.1 MPH — but we’re more interested in year-to-year consistency when making this argument than we are in Panik’s exit velocity relative to the league average.

An area in which he made obvious improvements, however, was his plate discipline. And if you’re familiar with Panik’s approach whatsoever, you know that that was no small feat. In his breakout 2015, he struck out just 9.7 percent of the time, while supplementing those strikeouts with a respectable 8.8 percent walk rate.

In 2016, he improved both of those figures. His strikeouts were reduced to 8.9 percent, while the walks ticked up to 9.5 percent. He swung less, both in and out of the zone, but when he did decide to take a rip, he had the fourth-best contact percentage in baseball.

Any player like that — high contact rate, low strikeouts, below-average exit velocity — is going to be more susceptible to bad BABIP luck, obviously. They live and die by an ability to hit ‘em where they ain’t, as they say. Panik will likely always have bigger BABIP fluctuations than your average player due to those peculiarities.

However, it’s also a reason to believe he’ll rebound in 2017. No, he probably won’t see as many balls fall in as did in 2015, but neither will he watch as many get caught as he did in 2016, in all likelihood.

That’s an easy thing to believe in in an intuitive sense. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Panik is probably in for a rebound this year. But it always helps when the statistical projections align with your own hypotheses, and that’s certainly the case here.

Both Steamer and ZiPS project Panik’s BABIP to get up in the .290 range. That’s still slightly below-average, and way below where Panik was two years ago, but slightly below-average is what you would expect from a guy whose exit velocity is… slightly below-average.

And as long as he does that, it’s easy to see Panik as an above-average regular once again. Hell, last year, even with all of his problems, both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus had him valued as north of two wins. Take that baseline, remove the crazy-low BABIP, and there you go.

He still has to go out and do it, of course, but if there is one player I would be betting on rebounding in 2016, it wouldn’t be Bryce Harper or Giancarlo Stanton. It’d be Joe Panik. Unlike those guys, all he needs is just a little more luck.

Ed. note: this article originally omitted any discussion of Panik’s concussion. It has since been updated.

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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.