Tuesday afternoon Mitch Haniger left the yard for the first time as a Seattle Mariner. It took place in Glendale, Arizona, at Camelback Ranch, just a 30 minute drive from Chase Field where he made his regular season debut. If you, like me, were watching the fickle feed provided by the White Sox, you may have seen the at-bat. If you were listening to the radio broadcast you got a clear spike in enthusiasm from Rick Rizzs.
If you were following on MLB Gameday or went to check back later, well...
I’m sorry to hear that.
Former LL writer and Mariners social media wizard Colin O’Keefe was clearly impressed too.
Since Gameday failed us, I decided to do a bit of investigation, and, combining the original video with Colin’s closeup, I tried to roughly approximate Haniger’s home run at around 450 feet, as depicted below.
Whatever way you slice it, the ball was mashed, but is there anything we can glean from that at-bat?
Haniger was facing off Michael Kopech, the #3 prospect in the White Sox system and the #16 prospect in all of baseball according to MLB.com, behind only INF Yoan Moncada and SP Lucas Giolito, both of whom can be fairly labled superprospects. Kopech is not yet an MLB-player, but he was the top prospect in the Arizona Fall League. Moreover, Kopech draws comparisons to Mets’ ace Noah Syndergaard due to his fastball that consistently hits 100 mph, with a vicious slider that lives in the low 90s as well. Spring Training stats and performances are not worth drawing significant conclusions from due to the combination of small sample sizes and wildly variable competition, but seeing players perform well against top talents is as encouraging as anything can or should be at this point. The approach of the at-bat itself in particular was impressive to see, and since the robots at MLB have failed us, I’ll try to recount the at-bat as best as possible for you.
The first pitch from Kopech was a slider on the outside corner for a strike, right at the knees. As the pitch came in I was immediately discouraged. A first pitch strike is always tough for a hitter, but is especially so when the first pitch is an offspeed offering from a pitcher with a high-velocity fastball. The hitter has the specter of the slower pitch looming in the forefront of their mind and is, by default, less prepared for a fastball.
The catcher, Kevan Smith, sets up inside, just off the corner, and holds his glove about belt-high. As Kopech goes into his windup, my video stream cuts out, and if anyone remembers well enough to contradict me I will defer to you, but I have penciled in that this was a fastball that Haniger either swung and missed at or fouled off. The catcher’s location precludes another pitch in most situations, and Haniger’s tendency to like inside fastballs makes him offering seem like the most likely scenario. Whatever the process, the result is clear.
Haniger is in trouble. Many of his strikeouts have come on low curves and sliders, which are perfectly set up in this situation by the threat of Kopech’s dominant fastball. Kopech has a so-so change-up, but is ostensibly a two-pitch operator. Anyone who watched Edwin Díaz last year knows how good two pitches can be when they have velocity, movement, and location. Everyone who watched Brandon League in 2012 also knows how little those first two factors do for you without the third. The live stream returns just in time for me to see the slow-mo replay: Kopech misses his spot, badly.
A slider postmarked for the dirt is airmailed at the letters and over the plate. Haniger does something that MLB hitters tend to be credited with doing: he punishes a mistake. Haniger’s first Major League hit, a triple, was recorded nearby, against Syndergaard, the very man scouts project Kopech to hopefully emulate one day. That hit was on a low-90s slider much like the one he walloped Tuesday.
Two hits does not a trend make, and while I am high on Haniger as a player this year, I do not intend to blow smoke without limitation. What is encouraging to see in these matchups with high-velocity opponents is the concrete evidence of something abstract that Haniger himself promoted when discussing his mechanical adjustments during his breakout 2016 season:
“I feel like now I’m able to recognize pitches better. I can make up my mind whether to swing or not later than I have in the past because my swing is deeper in the zone. I’m able to stay off close pitches. It’s easier for me to use all fields and to see pitches better.”
If you haven’t read it yet, our own Jake Mailhot did a magnificent job detailing those adjustments earlier this offseason. Haniger’s ability to see the ball later is a boon in any at-bat, but would stand to reason as a particularly valuable asset against pitchers like Kopech with elite velocity. Just as we shouldn’t overreact to either of his two strikeouts this spring, his homer should be treated with temperance. Spring Training is a miserable time for true evaluations, but there are useful nuggets to be found in individual moments and matchups. The whole Mariners team tore the cover off the ball Tuesday, but nobody hit a ball harder than Mitch Haniger. Let’s see if they can do it again tomorrow.