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Why the projections missed Mitch Haniger

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After two identical seasons at the plate, there are two competing narratives surrounding Mitch Haniger. What gives?

Baltimore Orioles v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Heading into the 2018 season, expectations for Mitch Haniger were all over the place. There was a vocal group of fans who had fully bought into the hype and were expecting big things from him. But the projections weren’t as bullish. In fact, they were downright pessimistic. And that’s understandable. If it weren’t for a torrid April and September, Haniger’s final line in 2017 would have looked much different. The data showed two outlier months weighed against his mixed minor league track record and 300 lackluster major league plate appearances. We were all familiar with the narrative and yet we clung to the promise those two months showed he was capable of.

To his credit, Haniger came through. He posted the 12th highest wRC+ in baseball in 2018 and established himself as a core piece of the Mariners future. Moreover, he proved the doubters wrong.

I don’t know if you noticed, but Haniger’s final line in 2018 is almost an exact mirror of his 2017 line. That’s not to take away from what he accomplished in 2018, he really was one of the best hitters in baseball. But I found it remarkable that the narratives surrounding each season were markedly different. Here’s a table comparing his last two seasons and his preseason projections.

Mitch Haniger vs. the Projections

Projection PA BABIP K% BB% ISO wOBA wRC+
Projection PA BABIP K% BB% ISO wOBA wRC+
2017 369 0.338 22.7% 7.6% 0.209 0.360 130
PECOTA 549 0.299 22.2% 9.1% 0.204 0.333 109
STEAMER 536 0.297 22.2% 8.3% 0.180 0.325 105
ZiPS 517 0.294 23.4% 7.7% 0.193 0.325 105
2018 596 0.336 21.7% 10.2% 0.208 0.367 138

After struggling to replicate his excellent minor league walk rates in 2017, Haniger improved his plate discipline across the board in 2018. That helped him push his wRC+ up by eight points. But his BABIP and ISO almost exactly matched across the two seasons.

While his performance last year was marred by a number of injuries, he was healthy for the entirety of this year, and yet his overall performance ended up relatively the same. That’s an interesting conundrum. Was his extremely good April a precursor to a huge breakout season in 2017 only to be tempered by his injury-plagued summer? Or was his steady performance this year a true baseline for what we can predict next year?

To try and figure that out, I want to take a closer look at his season this year. Here’s a chart showing Haniger’s 15-game rolling wOBA over the past two years.

Maybe Haniger’s 2018 wasn’t as consistent as his overall numbers imply. He had two significant slumps during the year, one towards the end of May and the beginning of June and the other at the end of July. I think we can figure out the cause of the first slump. Haniger was hit on the wrist by a Trevor Cahill fastball on May 22. He missed the next game but was back in the lineup after that. But I think it had a bigger effect on his production at the plate than expected. Here’s a monthly chart of his average exit velocity from this season.

Haniger’s average exit velocity dips significantly in June and July before jumping back up in August. Was his wrist bothering him more than he let on? I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. What we do know is that he was hitting the ball with much less authority in after being hit by that pitch. It’s certainly possible that a nagging wrist could have messed with his swing mechanics.

Not only did it affect his exit velocity, it also affected his overall swing rate. When healthy, Haniger normally runs swing rates around 44%. In June, his swing rate dipped to 39.7% and dropped even lower in July, to 36.7%. His swing rate has dropped that low in a month only once before, in June 2017 immediately after returning from his oblique injury. Maybe that wrist injury caused Haniger to be a little more conservative at the plate. He did push his walk rate its highest point of the season during those two months. But it also meant he wasn’t putting as many pitches into play.

Haniger finished the season with a couple of strong months in August and September and now we turn to his future. Just this cursory glance at a couple of his peripherals tells me that Haniger’s best season is yet to come—if he can stay healthy for six months. The projection systems won’t take all the bumps and bruises he’s collected over the last two years when they calculate their 2019 projections. I’d expect a slightly bearish projection, probably somewhere around a 120 wRC+. But with improved plate discipline paired with his powerful swing, the sky is the limit for Haniger.