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Mitch Haniger’s trouble with the fastball

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Mitch Haniger’s strikeout rate is higher than ever. What gives?

Seattle Mariners v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

If you look at his overall offensive contributions this year, Mitch Haniger seems to be in the midst of another productive season. His 116 wRC+ is down from what he’s shown he’s capable of over the last couple of years, but he’s hitting for more power than ever. More than half of his hits this year have gone for extra-bases. But if you dig a little deeper, some worrying trends start to appear.

Obviously, the most concerning thing has been his elevated strikeout rate. From his debut in 2016 through last season, Haniger established a remarkably consistent strikeout rate around 22%. This season, it’s jumped up to 28%. Thankfully, his walk rate has stayed as strong as ever, and I like I mentioned above, his power output is on the rise. But the elevated strikeout rate combined with a depressed BABIP have conspired to hold him back from truly flourishing this year.

Haniger has always had a strong approach at the plate. He’s comfortable taking pitches in the zone to hunt for the right pitch to hit hard. That’s borne out in his plate discipline metrics. Rather than use the vanilla plate discipline metrics listed on FanGraphs, I’m going to use the revamped metrics I used a month ago when analyzing the Mariners Control the Zone approach. These use a common denominator and cover the six possible outcomes for any given pitch. I like them because they give us a more nuanced look at a player’s plate discipline.

Haniger’s Plate Discipline

Pitch Outcome 2019 2018 2017
Pitch Outcome 2019 2018 2017
Swing and miss in the zone 3.9% 3.5% 3.3%
Contact in the zone 24.3% 23.6% 25.7%
Pitch taken in the zone 16.2% 16.3% 18.0%
Swing and miss out of the zone 6.1% 5.7% 5.4%
Contact out of the zone 7.5% 9.0% 7.6%
Pitch taken out of the zone 42.0% 41.9% 40.0%

For Haniger, there really isn’t a big red flag in his numbers this year. He’s producing a positive result in around 73% of the pitches he sees this year which lines up with what he’s done in the past. But his overall whiff rate is elevated, and particularly on pitches in the zone. That’s likely the biggest contributor to his ballooning strikeout rate this year.

The big red flag shows up when we dig into what types of pitches Haniger is missing. This graph explains it all.

He’s swinging through fastballs—four-seamers, sinkers, and cutters—at a much higher rate than normal. And a lot of those whiffs are coming on fastballs out of the zone. Pitchers seem to be attacking him inside more often this year and he’s swinging through those pitches. He’s also struggled to make contact on pitches up and away from him.

But his struggles against fastballs doesn’t stop there. The quality of contact he’s making against fastballs has really suffered this year. The table below lists his expected wOBA on contact for the three major pitch types over the last three seasons.

xwOBA on Contact

Pitch Type 2019 2018 2017
Pitch Type 2019 2018 2017
Fastballs 0.432 0.572 0.463
Offspeed 0.813 0.352 0.441
Breaking 0.331 0.469 0.426

Based on his exit velocity and launch angle—and ignoring strikeouts and walks—Haniger’s xwOBA against fastballs has fallen by 140 points this year. Luckily, he’s absolutely demolishing offspeed pitches this year. His average exit velocity is down a little this season but he’s increased his average launch angle to 18.4 degrees. Against fastballs, his launch angle is even higher at 22.7 degrees. That would be fine if he was barreling every fastball up, but barring that kind of quality, his high launch angle has resulted in far too many fly outs. That partially explains his depressed BABIP this year. Last night’s performance against Lance Lynn was the perfect illustration of Haniger’s struggles this year. He struck out swinging on a couple of fastballs and popped out on another.

If we look back through Haniger’s career, we see a few stretches where his overall whiff rate spills over 10% and a corresponding jump in strikeout rate.

The concern over his strikeout rate and whiff rate to start this season is likely exacerbated by the smaller sample size we’re seeing compared to seasons past. We’re past the point where whiff rate stabilizes but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re seeing a new talent level this year. As the plate discipline metrics showed above, his approach hasn’t really changed all that much. But his ability to crush fastballs is a bit more concerning. If he wants to reach the level of production he enjoyed last season, Haniger is going to need to make some adjustments. Elevating against fastballs is definitely a path to success, but there’s a point of diminishing returns.