COLUMBIA, SC — Its hard to put a finger on Joey Pankake.
The junior played shortstop his first two seasons for the Gamecocks before being moved to third base this season. He also started a handful of games in left field early in the season to allow USC coach Chad Holbrook flexibility with his lineup.
The strong-armed Pankake was touted as a potential closer before elbow soreness in the fall practices forced Holbrook to take Pankake out of the pitching equation because of his value to the everyday lineup.
And after serving as the teams No. 3 hitter for most of this season and last season, Holbrook installed him in the leadoff spot where he had not batted since the 2012 College World Series finals on Tuesday night against Furman.
Hes one of our best athletes. He doesnt get enough credit for the way he runs. Hes an athletic kid who can play all over the field, Holbrook said. Hes our toughest out, offensively. Hes got a professional, big league-type approach. He doesnt swing at pitches out of the strike zone. He can take his walks, a high on-base-percentage guy. He does a number of things very, very well.
After batting .264 as a freshman with two homers and 27 RBIs, he busted out last season with a .311 average, 11 home runs and 42 RBIs. But his up-and-down defensive play he made 17 errors at shortstop both seasons had Holbrook looking for another option there this season, which meant a move to third base.
That spot fits both his skill sets and his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame better, and he has cut down on his mistakes this season with three errors in 24 games there.
The Easley native said the experience has been different for a guy who has played shortstop most of his baseball life.
I feel good over there (at third base). Im settling in just fine, he said. Im making the routine plays. Id like to get to a couple more balls to my left and my right. I feel like Im just out of reach sometimes.
After a slow start at the plate this season, Pankake has heated up a 16-games hitting streak ended last weekend against Arkansas to push his numbers to a .325 average (.362 in SEC play) with three homers and 18 RBIs. His power numbers are somewhat off from last season, but his teammates have come to rely on him as a run producer.
Youve got a good feeling when hes up at the plate, junior center fielder Tanner English said. Hes the guy you want in the box when there are runners in scoring position and youre down by one run.
Pankakes ability to be a future professional isnt in doubt. His name certainly will be called during MLBs June draft. But in what round and at what position?
He was selected in the 42nd round out of high school by the Texas Rangers, but he was intent on attending USC. He likely would have been drafted much higher if he had been willing to sign as a pitcher, but he was determined to be an everyday player collegiately.
Perfect Game, a national scouting service, noted the element of uncertainty surrounding him in its draft evaluation this season, given his positional switch and the fact that he decided not to compete in the Cape Cod League last summer, where the top college players annually showcase their skills against each other. Their midseason projections have Pankake projected somewhere in the top five rounds.
Other scouts believe his lack of a clear position may cause him to slip any number of rounds lower than that. In the preseason, Baseball America ranked him the seventh-best pro prospect in the SEC for the 2014 MLB draft as well as No. 40 on its list of Top 100 college draft prospects.
Pankake said MLB scouts told him in the fall that he was being considered as both an infielder and an outfielder. So he has no idea what to expect. And if some team wants to try him back on the mound, despite not pitching in college, hes ready.
I guess Id have to take it then, right? But I want to hit as long as I can, he said. When I get to a level I cant hit at, I guess Ill start pitching.
Holbrook has confidence that teams can identify his value no matter where he ends up.
The majority of the folks I talk to see him as an offensive second baseman at the pro level. Thats up to the organization, Holbrook said. His versatility is a great trait for him. Its going to allow him to stay in the game for a long time.
Pankake would love nothing more than to return to Omaha one last time before he leaves campus.
Holbrook is counting on his one of his veterans and captains to help the Gamecocks do that.
Hes a really gifted baseball player, Holbrook said. On top of that, hes a tough cookie. He loves to compete. Hes got all the traits and intangibles you want to go with a well-rounded skill set.