Reader, I confess: Mitch Haniger has never been a personal favorite of mine.
This is through no fault of Mitch himself, rescue dog-owning, West Seattle-dwelling, partner-with-an-education-degree Mitch. We have lots in common! And I quite enjoy Mitch’s family, those who have dubbed him “Meeshka,” who show up and show out for him regularly with signs that consist of Mitch-on-a-stick, lovingly hashtagged #FlatHanny and photographed having adventures about town on Instagram (if you don’t get this reference, look up the book Flat Stanley, and also shoutout to the generations of teachers who have used Flat Stanley as a springboard for adventures. I’m still waiting for the one I mailed away in 1989 to come home?).
The thing about Mitch Haniger is he’s fine. I don’t mean fine like average—he was an All-Star in 2018!—but fine like, the one kid you don’t have to worry about, fine like the co-worker you know won’t screw up the ordering and ruin everyone’s week, fine like the guy confidently paddling away from the overturned boat. Every fiber of Mitch Haniger’s being exudes competence and also don’t worry I’ll pay my share of the check and also cover the tip for the table. Although I do not know him personally, if I had to pick someone to be stuck in a hostage situation with, I would elect Mitch Haniger over many of my friends and most, if not all, of my family. Clearer heads and all that. Sorry not sorry, if I am in a hostage situation I want to make sure that pizza gets to me safely and without incident.
But for all of that, Haniger has never been a personal favorite of mine. Part of it is he’s had a staff champion from the jump in John, plus plenty of attention from the nationals, when they deigned to pay attention to the Mariners. Meetch didn’t need me, and there were all these Evan Scribners and Chris Hestons to look after. In fact, after Edwin Díaz was dealt last off-season I was a vocal champion of trading Haniger (and Marco), tearing the team down to the studs and going for a deep rebuild rather than “re-set.”
Haniger wasn’t dealt, of course, and then in early June suffered a catastrophic injury that kept him out for the rest of the 2019 season. However, despite sitting out most of last season, Haniger’s name crops up in trade rumors with some regularity, and I was surprised to find myself feeling...protective? about not giving up Haniger. It’s not even that the return for a wounded star would inevitably feel like short shrift; something has shifted with my relationship to Mitch Haniger, like in the third act of a rom-com, also known as the you...it’s always been you.
It’s always been you, Mitch! How was I so blind?
Yes okay Mitch I get it, sheesh, or should I say, shMeeeeeeeeshka. Stand down with that eyebrow, sir!
From the outside, several of Haniger’s metrics from last year seem worrisome. His soft contact rate spiked to a career-high 21% while he put the ball in the air almost 10% more of the time than he did last year. He cranked up his launch angle to an average of 18.7 degrees—six degrees higher than his All-Star Season—but didn’t see any benefit from that outside of an increased isolated power mark, with his expected batting average (xBA) tumbling from .281 to .225. In just shy of 300 PAs in 2019, Haniger looked to be creeping towards a traditional TTO (Three True Outcome) player, holding his walks steady at over 10% with a career-high ISO of .244 (15 HR, or almost 60% of his total from 2018, his All-Star season, in about a third of the plate appearances) and a heretofore un-Mitchlike K% of 28.6%. For someone who has admitted himself he’s not built in the power slugger mold of a Nelson Cruz but sees himself as more of a Josh Donaldson type hitter, those numbers can seem concerning. How tempting was the juicy ball for our normally staid Mitch? And can he return to form?
There’s no question that Haniger barreled up the ball when he saw it last year. Even with an abbreviated season, Haniger ranks at 79 among all qualified MLB hitters in barrels per plate appearance percentage (Brls/PA%); at 7.1, he trails trade partner Ketel Marte, who hits in a much more offensively forgiving environment. But as far as consistency goes, that’s slightly behind where Haniger placed in 2018, when he was 73rd in baseball, just behind teammate Daniel Vogelbach. Haniger actually did a better job of barreling up the ball in 2019, with a slight uptick in his barrel %, but did so with a slight loss of average exit velocity (90.2 down to 88.4); however, his average home run distance traveled about the same between 2018 and 2019.
It’s difficult to forecast what Haniger would have done over a season-long sample working with a baseball that behaved differently from baseballs in the past, but there is enough in his underlying numbers to suggest that, despite the stark uptick in strikeouts, Haniger’s numbers would have evened out to around his career production over the year. Despite the higher soft contact numbers, Haniger was still hitting the ball hard per FanGraphs’ Hard Hit %, which is reflected in his Statcast Barrel %.
There’s a reason Jerry Dipoto has fielded multiple calls on Mitch Haniger this off-season; other, outfield-poor teams see an opportunity given the Mariners’ relative wealth at the position combined with Haniger’s injury-addled 2019 as an opportunity to score a deal on the freshly-turned 29-year-old. But while I’ve been a slow sell on Haniger, Jerry Dipoto has been sold from the start, and won’t be handing off his franchise player for anything less than what he believes Haniger is worth, especially since the numbers suggest Haniger is due for a bounceback next season, injury issues aside—and Haniger has been subject to some poor injury luck, from a pesky strained oblique to getting hit in the face and the junk by baseballs, two places no one should get hit by anything, ever.
And for this I am glad. (Not the junk-hitting, jerks, read a couple sentences back.) It’s taken three-plus years, but Mitchell Evan Haniger has clambered into my icebox heart and is currently performing the Rat Scat from The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) there.
You are the rat skating on pats of butter across the griddle of my cold dead heart, Mitch Haniger. Here’s to a healthy and productive 2020.