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40 in 40: Mitch Haniger

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He is smart. He should be steady. He could be a star.

Hey Mitch.
Kate Preusser

I’ve had a lot of favorite Mariners in my lifetime. Growing up I loved Griffey most, then Edgar replaced him as The Kid departed. Mike Cameron entered my heart next, and never truly left. As I aged into a pitcher and began to identify more strongly with fellow hurlers, Félix and Iwakuma stole my heart, as well as their Catcher-Who-Was-Promised, Mike Zunino. The 2016 Mariners were full of flavor and fun, yet, perhaps to their credit, no single player stood head and shoulders above the rest for me. 2017 has a different tale to tell, though, and Mitch Haniger is the clubhouse leader to be my favorite Mariner of 2017.

It starts with the talent. Haniger was a first round pick out of Cal Poly in 2012 for the Brewers. The 26 year-old’s size indicates a frame with power to unlock, and his speed and arm combine to make him a capable center fielder. That range should shine even brighter in right field, which the Mariners have proclaimed is his job to lose. Paired with Leonys Martín and Jarrod Dyson, Seattle has created a new, man-made Marine Layer to suppress and stifle any balls that dare to venture towards the outfield grass. Below are a pair of charts: one showing the balls that dropped on Haniger’s watch in his 34 games in Arizona, and the other tracking every ball he did reach.

Baseball Savant

That’s a very nice start for young Mr. Haniger. All metrics benefit from more data, and defensive metrics in particular are most valuable when viewed on a yearly scale as opposed to a monthly one, but combining Haniger’s scouting reputation with the performance he put up in hot, spacious Arizona puts his defensive capability in a very favorable light. Note the fact that not a single “Easy” or “Routine” ball dropped on Mitch’s watch, and only a single “Tough” eluded him. For comparison, take a gander at the man Haniger will be replacing in right.

Baseball Savant

A bad Dad year. Smith wasn’t a disaster defensively by this metric per se (though his combined work with Nelson Cruz and Franklin Gutierrez last year reeks elsewhere) but you can see immediately the improvement Haniger provides. Mitch will gobble up those “Easy” hits that dropped last year, and likely snag plenty of the “Toughs.” Haniger and the rest of the Marine Layer should infuriate opponents, turning hits into highlights on a nightly basis.

To put it another way, See Mitch Run.

See Mitch Fly.

See Mitch Fire.

The Seth Smith comparison may seem cruel to our dearly departed dad defensively, but their offensive skills share similarities as well, which bodes well for the Mariners. Smith’s career triple-slash is a commendable .261/.342/.415, with an above-average lifetime wRC+ of 112. Smith legally had his name changed to “Professional Hitter Seth Smith” in early 2015, due in large part to his proclivity for plate discipline. Smith knew what pitches he hit well and was willing to wait for the pitcher to deliver, and was able to run an OBP 80-90 points higher than his average as a result of that patience.

Haniger struggled to find success at the MLB level last year, but where he shined was his discipline. A .229/.309/.404 line doesn’t jump off the page, but the 9.8% BB rate is well above the league average of 8.2%, and his .256 BABIP doesn’t jibe with the plus speed he possesses. Jerry Dipoto didn’t mince words recently about his confidence in Haniger’s offensive ability:

“By the numbers, Haniger was able to show that he was the best offensive player last year in the minor leagues at any level.”

This is not hyperbolic. Mitch ripped into the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League where the Tacoma Rainiers and Haniger’s Reno Aces play like a ravenous kaiju, posting a .341/.428/.670 line, with a 185 wRC+. Since 2006, which is as far as Fangraphs goes back with advanced MiLB numbers, only one AAA hitter (2013 Chris Colabello) has outhit Haniger in a minimum of 300 PAs. wRC+ is my favorite at-a-glance metric of measuring offensive performance. For anyone unfamiliar with scale of this stat, 100 is league-average, and every number above or below is that percent better or worse than league-average. When we talked earlier about Seth Smith and his 112 wRC+, what that is saying is Dad was roughly 12% better than the average MLB hitter. Mike Trout led the MLB last year in wRC+ with 171, which is a licentious 71% better than league average. Last year Mitch Haniger was the Rich Man’s Mike Trout of AAA.

As much fun as it would have been to title this piece around that concept, it is, of course, an absurd assessment. A 26 year-old Haniger is not going to turn into Mike Trout. What he is going to do is continue working every day to try and become Mike Trout anyway. It’s what he’s done his entire career.

Haniger is a sponge for baseball knowledge, and has persistently pursued guidance on ways to improve himself. That began with his older brother, Jason Haniger, who was a catcher drafted by the Pirates in 2008. Mitch recalled seeing Jason and his friends getting drafted, and realizing that his dreams were attainable. From a 2012 interview, the value of the brothers’ relationship is evident:

“I talk to my brother a lot. He's helped me mature as a hitter big-time with my approach, and just little hitting drills when we go back home over break. When he comes home, he'll help me, teach me some things he's learned.”

Off the field, too, both Jason and Mitch display a zeal for learning and for charity. Jason led Georgia Tech’s team in Special Olympics and Toys for Tots campaigns, as well as numerous fundraisers for children’s hospitals. Mitch seems to have developed that same predilection, no matter how big or small the beneficiaries.

Finding ways to better himself was not limited to in-family options, of course. Early in college Haniger struggled with back injuries and sought out instruction on tailoring his workouts to counter and prevent future pain. The next year was a healthy, breakout season, and he became a 1st round pick. He was beloved and ribbed by his teammates for his meticulous nature. One teammate outlined his attention to detail with amusement when Haniger was still a standout freshman at Cal Poly:

“He’s pretty crazy, one of the funniest guys I have ever met. He’s pretty superstitious, that’s for sure. He does his own thing; he knows what he is doing. I know he puts his shirts on in a separate order and undresses the same way. He cuts his hair every Thursday, before a series.”

When his development appeared to stall in 2015 Haniger asked to return from AA to Single-A to continue to make mechanical adjustments. There, Mitch did what he’d always done: studied the experts until he found a plan that worked for him. Bobby Tewksbary and Matt Lisle are two gurus Haniger found inspiration from, but he also studied film of hitters he modeled himself after. His former teammates A.J. Pollock and Jake Lamb, as well as Toronto’s Josh Donaldson, were hitters Haniger saw as appropriate players to emulate.

“I studied mostly right-handed hitters because that’s what I am. I studied lefties, too, but for the most part, it was right-handed guys who aren’t ginormous in size but who produce a lot of power. That’s what I felt like I hadn’t been able to tap into.”

Haniger is not ginormous, but his bat can be. See Mitch Swing.

See Mitch Run.

See Mitch Mash.

Haniger is projected for 1.9 WAR, with a 99 wRC+ by Steamer. They are nonplussed by his defense, but expect him to be a perfectly serviceable MLB starter this year, and I agree. Serviceable players are worth getting excited about on a team that has lived and died by its stars for two years. I am more bullish on Haniger than the projections, which will come as no surprise, I’m sure. I recognize, however, there are legitimate uncertainties with any player lacking a track record of MLB success. Haniger’s plate discipline, speed, and defense all form a high floor for his production. If the adjustments to his swing stick, his power and contact should impress as well. If you’re worried the overwhelmingly positive response he’s received since arriving in Seattle has gone to his head, fear not.

Shannon Drayer

Mitch has more to learn and more to prove. We’re going to enjoy watching him work.