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The Trials of Mitch Haniger

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What’s going on with Mitch Haniger?

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Something isn’t right with Mitch Haniger. Between the two injuries to his oblique and his finger and the emergence of Ben Gamel, his once promising season has lost a lot of its sheen. After posting a 188 wRC+ in April, many were calling Haniger a dark horse Rookie of the Year candidate. He’s posted just a 75 wRC+ since returning from the disabled list dashing any hope of earning any hardware at the end of the season. Instead, we’re left wondering what’s gone wrong in the last month and whether or not he can make the adjustments necessary to produce at the plate again.

To start, let’s break Haniger’s season into two buckets—before and after his oblique injury. Obviously, these two time periods are rather short, giving us some small samples to work with—95 plate appearances in April and 137 in June and July. With that said, here’s a table of a few of his key stats split between these two stretches of the season.

Mitch Haniger—2017

Time Period K% BB% ISO BABIP wOBA Avg Exit Velo
Time Period K% BB% ISO BABIP wOBA Avg Exit Velo
Pre-DL 21.1% 13.7% 0.266 0.418 0.443 85.5
Post-DL 24.1% 8.0% 0.115 0.267 0.280 87.1

Woof. Across the board, Haniger has been much worse after returning from the disabled list. I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone. The only metric that gives us a hint of hope is his average exit velocity. Let’s dig into his Statcast numbers a bit deeper.

I went to Baseball Savant to pull up Haniger’s batted ball data and created a rolling average for his exit velocity. As you saw above, he’s hit the ball a little harder after returning from the disabled list but a rolling average should give us a little more information about how his season has actually looked.

Via Baseball Savant

Prior to his injury, his exit velocity was rather stable, sitting around his overall average of 85.5 mph. But after his injury, it’s been all over the place. It took him a while to find his stroke after his injury but he had a two week period where he was hitting the ball very well. That recent dip in exit velocity coincides with his finger injury he suffered in Chicago right after the All-Star break. Baseball Savant has recently developed an expected wOBA (xwOBA) calculation based on a player’s batted ball exit velocity and launch angle. Prior to his injury, Haniger was making the most of his exit velocity and launch angle (I mentioned this in an article earlier this year). His .434 xwOBA essentially matched the .443 wOBA he actually posted in April. But since returning, his .312 xwOBA is much higher than the .280 wOBA he’s suffered through in June and July—he’s gotten a little unlucky on his balls in play.

The other concerning thing about the second half of Haniger’s season thus far is the decline of his plate discipline skills. Both his strikeout rate and his walk rate have trended the wrong direction the past month. His plate discipline was one of the things that made Haniger stand out during his outstanding April. It wasn’t just that he was crushing the ball, his approach at the plate was mature for a rookie and showed that he was taking the “control the zone” mentality to heart. Thanks to FanGraphs, we can build a rolling average of his discrete plate discipline stats to see what’s gone wrong in the past month.

I’ve inserted a vertical bar to show where Haniger suffered his oblique injury. In April, he was laying off pitches outside of the strike zone at a rate much better than league average while swinging at and making contact with pitches in the zone at a very healthy rate. He had a plan at the plate, looked for pitches he could handle and laid off pitches he couldn’t.

That in-zone contact rate has essentially stayed the same throughout the season but his swing rates have bounced all around after returning from the disabled list. The recent stretch around Game 40 (July 2) is particularly concerning. Not only has Haniger been chasing pitches out of the zone more often, his overall swing rate has increased by around 10 points. And while his contact rate on pitches outside of the zone has increased as well, those aren’t necessarily the pitches he wants to be hitting anyway. To me, it looks like he’s pressing at the plate, trying to get something going by any means possible. He’s gotten away from the plan he had at the beginning of the year and it’s really hurt his production.

So there are two problems Haniger is dealing with right now. His health will be something that only time can take care of. Eventually, his finger will heal and he should be able to correct his poor batted ball luck with some hard hit balls in play. The plate discipline numbers are a harder problem to solve. He’s probably pretty frustrated with his performance at the plate and pressing to get anything going isn’t helping. Those kinds of mental hurdles aren’t easily solved, nor do they have a standard solution. It could be he needs a mental day off, or maybe he just needs to string together a few at-bats where he focuses on his process rather than his results. April showed us what Haniger is capable of when everything is going right. Now he needs to make the adjustments necessary to get back to that point.