When Joe Panik appears at his first All-Star Game on Tuesday in Cincinnati, he will have missed sharing the stage with his childhood idol by one year. Former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter appeared in his final All-Star Game last July before retiring at the end of the season.
Then again, Panik at the time had been in the majors for all of three weeks.
It has been a rapid ascent for the 24-year-old from Hopewell Junction, N.Y., who made his major-league debut last June 21, became the Giants’ everyday second baseman in August, played a key role for a World Series champion in October and is now, a little more than a year removed from his first glimpse of the big leagues, an All-Star.
Yet for those who would call Panik’s story unlikely, who may have questioned the Giants using the 29th overall pick in the 2011 draft on an unflashy player out of St. John’s, there is at least one person not surprised by Panik’s emergence over the past year.
“I go back to the old adage of, ‘No matter what level, winners win,’” said Panik’s older brother, Paul. “All through high school, going to the regional finals (of the NCAA Tournament) at St. John’s, then doing well at each level in the minors – and what the Giants preach, that it’s the team first – he plays into their mold.
“I always knew he had the talent and the ability. So no, I don’t see this as a shock.”
Last season was no fluke
Panik has spent the first half of this season proving his second half last year was no fluke. At the break, he is batting .308 with a .372 on-base percentage, seven home runs and 33 RBIs. He leads National League second basemen in wins above replacement (3.3), according to FanGraphs.com, and has made just two errors in 384 chances, forming a sure-handed middle infield with shortstop and fellow first-time All-Star Brandon Crawford.
Last week, Panik said he is most proud this season of his strides on defense. A shortstop throughout college, Panik got his first taste of second base during the Arizona Fall League in 2011. It was also his first time playing alongside Crawford, who debuted in the majors that year and soon would become the Giants’ everyday shortstop.
Panik said he “wasn’t going to fight” the move to second, adding with a grin: “I knew (Crawford) was pretty good over there.” Still, it took playing second for most of a full season at Double-A Richmond in 2013 for Panik to feel comfortable with the footwork. He went through another adjustment period after being called up by the Giants last summer, when “the game kind of sped up on me a little bit.”
“(This year) I’ve been a lot more consistent in my play out there in the field,” Panik said. “I think just going around a second, third time, seeing hitters, starting to read hitters, I’m using my instincts more, just playing the game I always used to play. And the more I’ve been out there, the more comfortable I’ve been turning double plays and all that.”
Asked where he thinks Panik has made the most improvement defensively this season, Crawford said: “He’s just consistent. It’s hard to say if there’s been one thing. It’s just that if a ground ball’s over there, you know the play’s going to be made.”
Doubling up at second
The double-play turn is one of the biggest challenges for a new second baseman because it’s made with the runner approaching his blind side. Giants bench coach Ron Wotus, who coaches the infielders, said Panik “hangs in there as good as anybody on the double-play pivot,” and this year, he has looked “more comfortable around the bag with different throws.”
Overall, Wotus said Panik’s improvement has been more about fine-tuning areas such as his positioning before pitches and reading of hitters.
“I truly believe you don’t really know all the nuances of a position until you’ve played it multiple years,” Wotus said. “He’s adjusted and done it at the major-league level, which is no small task considering everybody’s judged on whether they hit or not.
“He’s been able to (hit) while refining the skills at second base. That’s a lot to ask for a young player, and he’s done it extremely well.”
Panik batted .305 after his call-up last year and this season has maintained that average while hitting for more power. He leads N.L. second basemen in on-base plus slugging percentage (.820), and his seven homers already match the most he hit during a full season in the minors, at Advanced Class-A San Jose in 2012.
“I think he reminds me of Buster (Posey, in the batter’s box). He’s got that calmness about him,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “You’ll see him take pitches, but he’s got a plan up there. If they make a mistake, he’s usually ready for it.”
Taking an early stand
Panik has long been precocious on the baseball field. While in eighth grade, he joined the varsity baseball team at John Jay High School, where he teamed with Paul, who is 2 years older. Paul, a catcher, went on to play at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., and is now an assistant coach there.
“In eighth grade, everybody knew he was the best guy, the best infielder,” Paul said last week. “He’s always shown it. But sometimes when you’re a little younger, people don’t like it. He had to prove himself, and keep proving himself.”
Joe grew up serving as a batboy for Paul’s teams and said he always looked up to Paul, who “pushed me and motivated me to be better as a ballplayer, and as a person.”
“We did everything together,” Paul said. “But I was older, I was bigger, I was stronger, so he had to earn everything. He had to work twice as hard to win the basketball game in the driveway.”
Until the day he didn’t have to. Paul recalled one game in which he drove to the basket and Joe, then about 13, didn’t back down.
“He bodied me pretty good,” Paul said. “So next time I whacked him pretty good, and it got a little physical. Mom’s coming down the stairs, playing referee in the middle of it … At that point, I realized he definitely wasn’t taking any crap from me anymore.”
The brothers have remained close despite Joe relocating to San Francisco. Joe said the two still communicate about every other day. Last October, Paul attended the World Series games in San Francisco but was unable to make Game 7 in Kansas City. In the middle of the Giants’ postgame celebration, with the champagne still flowing, Joe stepped away to talk to Paul on the phone.
“I could tell in his voice that he wanted to be there,” Joe said. “That’s why I think it’ll be very special having him out there at the All-Star Game.”
Paul will be in Cincinnati on Tuesday, along with their parents, Paul and Natalie, and Joe’s fiancée, Brittany Pinto.
“Seeing him now with the quote ‘best of the best’ – he’s mentioned in the same breath as those guys now,” Paul Jr. said. “It’s one of those things like, I knew that he could be an All-Star someday. Do you ever dream that it could be this quickly? No, not necessarily.
“But you hope so.”