SAN FRANCISCO — The strikeout rate leaderboard from last season is a who’s who of Major League Baseball’s sluggers. Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge both checked in among the top five. Both variations of Khris/Chris Davis made the top 10. The rest of the top 20 is littered with names like Thames, Bellinger and Upton.
These days, most sluggers are all too happy to sell out for power, even if that leads to strikeouts 30 to 35 percent of the time. Then there’s the guy at the opposite end of the spectrum. Joe Panik struck out in just 9.4 percent of his at-bats last season, the lowest rate in the majors. He led the league in strikeout rate in 2016, too.
That ability has Panik emulating what the sluggers have done. Early on in 2018, he’s the best of both worlds. Panik has one strikeout in 19 at-bats and the bat control remains as world-class as ever. But he also has three homers, and through five games, he has virtually been the Giants offense.
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Panik hit a third solo blast in Tuesday’s 6-4 loss to the Mariners. Afterward, he admitted that this is not just some early-season hot streak. There was a method to Panik’s spring training adjustments. The new hitting coaches — Alonzo Powell and Rick Schu — sat with Panik, looked at that microscopic strikeout rate, and set a new plan in motion.
“I trust myself with two strikes, so early in the count you can take your shots when you can,” he said. “Don’t give in early. That’s the approach. Don’t hit the pitcher’s pitch. Wait for a mistake because when you get to two strikes, you can still do damage. I’m very confident doing that and maybe that’s why I’ve done what I’ve done.”
Panik took that approach in the fourth inning Tuesday against lefty Marco Gonzales. On a 2-1 count he got an elevated changeup and pulled it into McCovey Cove. His homer off Kenley Jansen came on an 0-1 count. The blast off Clayton Kershaw was on a 2-2 pitch, reiterating that belief that he’s comfortable with two strikes.
The slight shift in approach has helped, but Panik said Powell and Schu also made a mechanical switch. He turns his front foot in a bit more than in the past, with the idea being that he can backspin more balls to his pull side. All three homers have been pulled to right field so far, but Tuesday’s was unique in a way.
San Francisco Giants
Panik had not homered at AT&T Park since August 28, 2016, so the splash hit ended a run of 12 consecutive road homers. It was one of two homers on the day for the Giants, and the other one woke up a dugout that had followed Panik’s lead for 42 innings. Evan Longoria’s first homer as a Giant was part of a late rally, but the lineup fell short. Panik represented the tying run when he poked an infield single the other way in the eighth but Andrew McCutchen flew out to right and Buster Posey grounded out. The Giants went down quietly in the ninth.
Despite the result, Bruce Bochy was happy to see late life. He had been considering lineup changes for Wednesday’s game — and maybe he still will make moves — but at the very least the Giants showed they’re more than a one-man offense. That man, Panik, said it’s only a matter of time before the rest join in.
In the meantime, the second baseman continues to be the story. After Panik’s third homer in five games, Bochy was asked how many he might hit.
“I’d say 60,” he cracked. “I’m not going to cut him short.”