The Giants held an early field work session for their September call-ups before Wednesday night’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and had the team’s second-base situation been a little more stable earlier this summer, Joe Panik might have been among them. Fortunately for the Giants, it was anything but.
Called up from Triple A on June 21 to help slow a revolving door at second base, the 23-year-old Panik has brought it to a screeching halt. After becoming the sixth Giants rookie ever with a five-hit game on Tuesday night, Panik entered Wednesday with a .327 batting average, job security at second and an increasingly strong hold on the No. 2 spot in the Giants’ order, where he was making his 12th consecutive start.
In the previous 11, Panik had collected 21 hits in 50 at-bats, a .420 average. In 31 games since Aug. 4, he had amassed 50 hits for a .403 average, the highest of any major-league hitter over that span. Seven other players have appeared at second base this season for the Giants and combined for a .177 average in 327 at-bats – only 11 of which were taken by Marco Scutaro, whose debilitating back opened the everyday role that has been assumed by the rookie from Yonkers, N.Y.
“He’s been better than anybody we could’ve brought in,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said of Panik. “I know a lot of people at the trade deadline were wanting to get a second baseman. But he’s done unbelievable since he’s been called up, filling in the two-hole, and he’s been playing really good second base also.”
Panik had played in just 24 games and was batting .211 at the July 31 trade deadline, but the Giants opted not to acquire a more established second baseman for the second half – a decision that now appears providential.
In his first game after the deadline, Panik went hitless in four at-bats to lower his average to .200. Over the next 31 games, he raised it by 127 points, recording 16 multi-hit games and scoring 18 runs as part of a resurgent Giants offense. The Giants entered Wednesday averaging the most runs per game (4.71) and with the highest team batting average (.280) in the majors since the All-Star break.
“I think he’s been one of the main catalysts to our offensive surge,” said catcher Buster Posey, who is batting .355 with 35 RBIs since the break. “With him and (leadoff hitter Angel Pagan) getting on at the top of the order, it just creates a lot of opportunities for myself and Pablo (Sandoval), Hunter (Pence) and everybody else down the lineup.”
As timely as Panik’s arrival has been for the Giants, his numbers have generated some talk of whether it came too late for Panik to warrant consideration for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. While that is among the least of the Giants’ concerns as they contend for a playoff spot, Panik may only fuel the discussion if he continues to perform.
Entering Wednesday, Panik had the highest batting average and OPS (.766) of any N.L. rookie with at least 199 at-bats. But he has played in just 57 games and will end the season having played in fewer than half of the Giants’ games. No N.L. position player has won Rookie of the Year appearing in fewer than half his team’s games since 1959, when the Giants’ Willie McCovey played in 52 games, hitting .354 with 13 home runs.
“That probably will hurt him, obviously, not being up here sooner,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “Still, I haven’t sat down and looked at all the rookies this year, but I’m sure he’s going to get some consideration for that. He should, with the numbers he’s put up in the short time he’s been here.”
Favorites for the N.L.’s top rookie award include Cincinnati outfielder Billy Hamilton – who had played in 139 games before Wednesday, ranking second in the majors with 55 stolen bases – and New York Mets starter Jacob DeGrom, who is 8-6 with a 2.62 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 1271/3 innings. Both have compiled nearly full seasons, albeit for teams that likely are not headed for the postseason.
Influencing his team’s playoff fortunes may have given the Giants’ last Rookie of the Year – Posey, in 2010 – a lift past that year’s runner-up, Jason Heyward, who posted similar numbers to Posey in 34 more games but was arguably less vital to the Atlanta Braves reaching the postseason. Still, while Posey wasn’t called up until the end of May in 2010, he played in 108 games and compiled impressive numbers from the middle of the order – 18 homers and 67 RBIs.
Posey said he believes Panik “definitely deserves to be in the conversation, just for the impact that he’s had on the team in the time he has been here.” Crawford said he hadn’t followed other rookies’ performance this season and that, “I’d have to look at that before (Panik would) get my vote, I guess. But from what he’s done for us recently, I’d say he’s been a very valuable rookie, for sure.”
Panik, meanwhile, said his past month has been “just one of those things (where) I’m trying to ride the hot streak.” He was then asked if he’s keeping track of his numbers.
“Honestly, no,” he said. “If you know, please don’t tell me.”