It was pointed out to Giants second baseman Joe Panik on Friday that had he not missed most of the second half of last season because of back problems, he might have made a serious run at the 200-hit mark. This was evidently not a new idea.
“Trust me, that was something in the back of my mind,” Panik said. “When you’re on the (disabled list) and you’re sitting around, it gives you a lot of time to think about things you shouldn’t be thinking about.”
The last Giants player to record 200 hits in a season was Rich Aurilia in 2001 – like Panik a product of St. John’s – and before that it was Bobby Bonds in 1970. With his concise swing and penchant for contact, Panik has shown potential to challenge that mark given a full major-league season, something he has yet to experience despite being part of Giants teams the past two years.
In 2014, Panik debuted in June, hitting .305 while becoming the Giants’ everyday second baseman and helping them win a World Series. Last year, he batted .312 in 100 games and had just made his first All-Star team when back inflammation cut his season short in early August.
Yet a relatively small sample size of 173 major-league games hasn’t diminished Panik in the eyes of evaluators. The Giants believe they have found their second baseman of the future, part of an entirely homegrown infield that rated last year as the best in baseball by both the analytics website FanGraphs and then-ESPN offshoot Grantland. MLB Network recently released its list of the top 10 second basemen in the majors with Panik at No. 3, behind only Jose Altuve and Robinson Cano, both of the American League.
The injury issues last year were disconcerting. The Giants had lost their previous second baseman, Marco Scutaro, to back problems as well, but Panik was just 24 years old with a clean bill of health in the minors. Lower back inflammation sidelined him in early August, and when he tried to return too fast for a stretch run, he lasted just three games in September before being shut down.
The good news, Panik said Friday, was that resting his back allowed it to heal. He said he finally started feeling normal around Thanksgiving, and by mid-December he was working out at full speed.
“Right now if you told me I had back issues last year, I would have said you’re lying,” Panik said. “I haven’t had one issue all offseason after I got cleared. Through all the hitting, running, throwing, fielding, leg work, core work, there hasn’t been one morning where I woke up with anything or (felt back pain) in the middle of working out.”
Panik said he was told he shouldn’t experience recurring back issues. He said he will do more “maintenance” for strength and flexibility in his core muscles this season to prevent the inflammation from returning. And he will remain mindful of runners’ speed when turning double plays at second base to avoid being taken out by a blind-side slide. But otherwise, he said, his back is “to the point where I don’t even think about it.”
That gave Panik time to think about other things over the offseason, such as keeping in touch with his fellow infielders while splitting his time between his home state of New York and the Giants’ facility in Arizona. Panik said he and third baseman Matt Duffy texted regularly because they were co-managing a team in the Giants’ clubhouse fantasy football league. Their team finished second to that of head trainer Dave Groeschner.
Panik also met up with shortstop Brandon Crawford while Crawford was in New York to receive his Gold Glove Award, Panik later learned. The two players and their wives took in a Broadway show and had dinner at a steakhouse in New York City, where Crawford insisted on paying.
Panik said he fought to take care of the tip. A few days later, the Giants announced they’d signed Crawford to a $75 million extension.
“I was like, OK, now I understand,” Panik said.
The Crawford extension was part of an active offseason – the Giants also acquired free agents Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span. Panik said it was “incredible” to watch the ownership’s commitment, “trying to put us in a good position.”
Now healthy, Panik said he’s excited to contribute again in 2016 – and maybe to chase that 200-hit mark.
“Thankfully I’m still young,” said Panik, 25. “Hopefully I’ll have plenty more cracks at trying to get to 200 hits. But right now, with the way I feel, I’m raring to go. And that’s something I’m looking forward to trying to accomplish this year.”
- Location: Scottsdale (Ariz.) Stadium
- Reporting dates: First practice, pitchers and catchers, Thursday, position players, Feb. 23
- First game: March 2, vs. Angels, 12:05 p.m.
- Opening Day: April 4, at Milwaukee, 11:10 a.m.
- Home opener: April 7, vs. L.A. Dodgers, 1:35 p.m.
- Location: Hohokam Stadium, Mesa, Ariz.
- Reporting dates: First practice, pitchers and catchers, Feb. 21, position players, Feb. 26
- First game: March 3, at Angels (Tempe, Ariz.), 12:10 p.m.
- Opening Day: April 4, vs. Chicago White Sox, 7:05 p.m.