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Why Mitch Haniger is here to stay

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Hint: He hits hard and does not lack discipline.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Seattle Mariners
Keep on watching, Mitch.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a good month for the Mitch Haniger fan club.

After an electric spring that drew the proper skepticism that preseason numbers should, Haniger has delivered in every game that’s mattered. He’s looked less like the second-coming of Casper Wells and more like the second-coming of Jayson Werth. He’s leading the Mariners in nearly every positive offensive category on a team that employs three of the top 25 hitters by wRC+ from 2016. He’s done it with power, speed, and patience. A lot of patience.

Yes. Small samples. Regression to means. All of the caveats we know to apply when there are fewer than even 100 instances to judge a player by so far this year. If we are going to judge anyone, however, it would be Mitch, who leads the league with 74 plate appearances and trails only Kyle Schwarber in pitches seen. How has it happened so far then, if nothing else, that the Mike Trout of AAA in 2016 is currently outhitting Mike Trout in the MLB? Simple:

Haniger is not swinging at bad pitches to hit, waiting for good pitches to hit instead, then swinging incredibly hard at them.

There you go. You’re welcome, hitters young and old, the secret is out! Okay, perhaps it’s a bit tougher than it sounds. What Haniger is doing is extremely difficult. By PITCHf/x, Haniger’s plate discipline numbers are exemplary.

Haniger’s Discipline

Category O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Z-Contact% SwStr%
Category O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Z-Contact% SwStr%
Mitch Haniger 19.1 62.5 39.1 91.1 7.1
League Average 30.1 64.0 46.0 85.7 10.4
Haniger's MLB Rank 12th-lowest 148th-highest 17th-lowest 48th-highest 38th-lowest

A few days ago Grant Bronsdon profiled a specific at-bat, wherein Haniger worked a walk off Sam Dyson to tie the game in the 9th inning. That was not an aberration, and while pitchers may wish he was a choker, Haniger’s ability to lay off pitches out of the zone allows him to bide his time until his pitch appears. His minuscule O-Swing% (percentage of pitches out of the strike zone he swings at) shows how Haniger turns lots of pitchers counts back towards his favor. This at-bat against Edinson Volquez on Wednesday in the 1st inning, for instance, is another easy example of Haniger refusing to give in to a pitcher who gets ahead initially.

Haniger works a walk after falling behind 0-2. It’s his fourth such walk of the year. Nobody else has more than two. Last year the league leading number was 12, and his 26.7% BB% after the count goes 0-2 is not only better than any such number this year or last year, it’s better than anyone’s BB% is this year or was last year.

Let me repeat that: Mitch Haniger walks at a higher rate when spotting the pitcher strikes on the first two pitches of the at-bat than anyone else has starting from a 0-0 count since 2004, and I’ll bet you can guess who that was.

This is patience that veteran players aspire towards. While the obscenity of his 0-2 excellence is unlikely to last at quite the same clip, he appears more than comfortable facing off against MLB pitching in any count. Not only is Haniger leading all rookies with his overall 14.9% BB%, he’s tied for 28th in the entire MLB. Haniger’s propensity for taking pitches will occasionally bite him. We know he’s not swinging and missing much, so his 23% K% (1.3% above league-average) has more to do with him taking strikes and occasionally putting himself in a hole. That’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make, however, to make sure he’s ready for his pitch when he does swing. Those swings have been life-saving for the Mariners so far, and the authority with which Haniger has made contact is notable. He’s swung like a man who knows where his bread is buttered.

His Swing% is laid out next to his ISO numbers below, and we can see Haniger is swinging most where he knows himself to be overflowing with power.

Swing% and ISO per pitch
Fangraphs

Power, obviously, comes from hitting the ball hard. However, as Marc from USS Mariner and our own Jake Mailhot outlined earlier this week, exit velocity doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to good hitters. Hitting the ball 103 mph into the ground is far less likely to result in a hit than a line drive. A towering fly ball can be hit hard, but requires much more force to result in a home run than a ball hit at a slightly lower angle. Generating powerful contact while optimizing launch angle is, simplistically, the key to producing balls in play with high hit probabilities and hitting doubles and homers instead of singles and popups.

From Jake’s piece on Tuesday:

Mitch Haniger is the poster child for maximizing his batted ball outcomes. His overall average exit velocity is a bit below league average but he really shines when he’s hitting the ball in the air. He’s tied for second on the team with eight balls in play hit in the air with an exit velocity greater than 98 mph. He might have a few more weakly hit ground balls and lazy fly balls mixed into his batted ball distribution than we’d want to see, but when he gets a hold of one, he does some damage.

Not only is Haniger making hard contact, he’s making it at the ideal point in his swing. Barrels are a metric borne out of Statcast data meant to define balls hit with this ideal combination of velocity and launch angle (a velocity+angle that historically have yielded a .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage, essentially). Haniger has registered five barrels so far, and the 18th-best barrels-per-batted ball. He’s not chasing out of the zone, but he’s not even allowing himself to go for so-so pitches in the zone either. As Eno Sarris noted yesterday, Haniger clearly knows who he is as a hitter, and that confidence and forethought is evident in his plan at the plate.

Haniger is going to receive more scouting and be challenged in various different ways that will cool him off somewhat this season. A lot of the standard adjustments pitchers make against rookies have been made already however, and they’re failing to find purchase. The 26 year-old is already seeing a majority of offspeed pitches, including around 24% sliders, and hasn’t missed a beat. He’s passed on them like you’d eschew a plate of stale bread when you know the steak you ordered is en route. Haniger has spots where pitchers can throw and have more success against him, but working up and away consistently is neither something most pitchers are comfortable with, nor something umpires tend to reward as much as pitching around the knees. Luckily for the Mariners, and unfortunately for opposing pitchers, when they bring the ball back down, Haniger will be waiting eagerly. He’s taken everything they’ve given him so far, and if they decide to continue to be cautious with him they’ll continue setting Robinson Canó and Nelson Cruz up with above-average runners on-base. That’s a dangerous game, and one the Mariners will be happy to play thanks to their Rookie of the Year candidate.

Kate Preusser

Mitch Haniger is ready for more.