Joey Pankake is playing third in Single A with the Connecticut Tigers in the New York-Penn League. (Kevin Pataky)
Have fun, one and all. The name is colorful and of such instant allure Joey Pankake has no doubt heard every derivation of joke possible.
Let’s see: The Tigers didn’t waffle when they picked him in the seventh round of June’s draft as he wrapped up his junior year at South Carolina.
And, oh yes: They loved his syrupy swing. He uses maple bats. He is a delicious batter. Opposing pitchers who think they’re having him for breakfast are in for a surprise. During a couple of tough games he looked flat.
Pankake has heard all the groaners.
His name, though, has been no more spirited than his hitting through his early weeks at Single A Connecticut, where Pankake, 21, was assigned after the Tigers signed him for $165,000, which was enough to keep him from returning to the Gamecocks for his senior year.
Pankake is batting .325 in 43 games, with two home runs, 24 RBIs and an .846 OPS.
“Oh man, he’s comfortable in the box right now, really got his swing going,” said Mike Rabelo, the former Tigers catcher who now manages Connecticut. “He’s got a quick bat, a short swing, and what I like is he’s not afraid to hit with two strikes. That’s huge, when you can hit the ball with authority with two strikes.
“And his strike-zone knowledge is really good for someone so young.”
Pankake is 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, bats right-handed, and turned down the Rangers in 2011 when they drafted him out of Easley (S.C.) High. He went on to play shortstop and third base for the Gamecocks, and was playing short as a freshman when South Carolina won the 2012 College World Series.
He moved to third base this season, and played some left field, although his defense is not on the same level as his bat (Gamecocks career: .292, 18 homers, 100 RBIs). His arm (“a cannon,” Rabelo said) makes third base his more natural professional station.
“He’s adequate,” Rabelo said of Pankake’s defense. “He makes the routine play. For a big boy, he moves pretty well. But that bat is more than an asset.”
Pankake played at South Carolina alongside another Tigers 2014 draft pick, catcher Grayson Greiner, who has been steady at Single A Michigan. Connecticut, of course, is a short-season league, designed for younger prospects fresh from the Lakeland, Florida, hatchery, as well as players just drafted.
“Even though a lot of these kids have come from major programs, the competition is still better here,” Rabelo said. “But then you’ve got the other factors that this first season of professional baseball is all about: playing every day, long trips, the infielders are better, the outfielders are a little quicker.
“No matter where these guys are from, you’ve got to simply let them play ball. What he (Pankake) has done this summer is learn the ropes of pro ball. He’s gotten his feet wet. He’s getting comfortable with how professional baseball works.”
For pure impact, no player at Connecticut has outdone Johan Belisario, a right-handed reliever who later this week turns 21. Belisario’s printout: 13 games, 23.1 innings, 14 hits, 22 strikeouts, and three walks (one intentional), good for an 0.77 ERA and a crazy WHIP of 0.73.
“He is nails,” Rabelo said, offering an ultimate baseball hosanna to Belisario’s grit. “He’s a calm, collected person who throws four pitches for a strike and will throw any of those pitches at any point in the count. He’s pretty remarkable to be pitching at this level at his age.
“He can thread a needle with a fastball that goes 90, 92, and runs up to 93, even 94. He’s got a breaking ball, a slider, and a change-up. He repeats his delivery well and throws down in the zone.
“And he’s mature beyond his years.”
Belisario (5-11, 165) was signed — no surprise — out of Bolivar, Venezuela, in 2009, when he was 16.
“He’ll get a little stronger as he gets older,” Rabelo said. “He’s going to fill out. But every time he pitches, he’s picking something up. He’s not just getting innings, he’s being used with a lot of traffic on the bases.
“He’s in there in the thick of things.”