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Breaking Mariners: Mitch Haniger edition

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A new series where two members of the LL staff take the over and under on projections for a certain player in 2021

Chicago Cubs v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

As projections for the 2021 season begin to roll in, we’re kicking off a new series here on the site where we take a projection for a particular player and two staff members argue the case for each player over- and under-achieving on said projection. Since we don’t have every projection system currently available, we’ll note them where available, but our discussions are hinged around an in-house decision on what we feel the “break point” is for that player’s projection, a number arrived at by negotiation and input from the staff that comes closest to being one writer’s ceiling and another’s floor. If there’s a player you’d especially like to see covered in this series, drop it in the comments and we’ll do our best to fulfill all such requests.

Player: Mitch Haniger

It’s been literal years since Mariners fans saw a healthy Mitch Haniger play his way onto an All-Star team, so much so that he feels like an afterthought by even the team itself. But Haniger is poised to return for a healthy 2021, having just barely grazed by his 30th birthday. Will this be the year Meeeeetch is able to avoid the random injury hobgoblins and play his way back to a second All-Star berth? Or does it make sense to set one’s sights lower for a player who has only cleared 500 PAs once in his career? With Seattle’s outfield situation looking thin outside of ROY Kyle Lewis, a productive year from Haniger is integral to Seattle’s playoff-adjacent hopes.

2021 ZiPS projection: 2.3 zWAR, 119 OPS+, .253/.335/.464; Steamer: 1.2 WAR

LL Break Point: 2.0 WAR

Taking the over: Kate

Were it not for Connor’s Eeyore-like outlook on Haniger (see below), I would have gone even higher on Mitch, closer to the 2.5 - 3.0 WAR range. Maybe it’s the product of spending a COVID winter starting at video after video of Mitch working out with his trainer, flexing a finally-healthy core as he does gator rolls and oblique-focused lower-half pull-ups. Maybe it’s that same COVID winter spent steeped in nostalgia, as so many of us have been, looking back at old games and Haniger’s glory days.

Haniger did see a sharp rise in strikeouts in 2019, but I’m willing to consider that data point as mostly noise for a player who has shown only excellent strike zone judgement for his entire career. Given the injury we now know Haniger was playing through for the first part of 2019, the raised whiff rate (up to 26.6%, which is still just a tad over MLB average at 24.5%, but well above Mitch’s pre-2019 23%) tracks, even as his walk rate remained steadily above-average. Haniger didn’t lose the ability to discern what good pitches are; his core weakness robbed him of the ability both to time those pitches up effectively and do damage on them when he saw them. Haniger’s steadily rising strikeout numbers through the course of the 2019 season back up the idea of a player attempting to compensate for degrading health; shortly before he went on the IL, his final plate appearances were marked by an even more exaggerated leg kick and a tendency to be consistently late on the fastball.

Haniger’s last off day of the 2019 season was April 29; he played every day in May before going on the IL in June, racking up a 30.8% K rate over that time. Eight HR hit in that time might seem encouraging, but recall that this was 2019 and the rabbit-ball was flying out of the stadium; Haniger only recorded a hard-hit percentage during that time of just under 31%, almost 10 percentage points lower than his career average.

The defense still projects to be solid to above-average, with Haniger rating in the 80th percentile for OAA in 2019, and while he’s lost a bit of his first-step quickness in the outfield, he makes up for it with highly efficient route running. As he enters his age-30 season Haniger might see a slight decline in his defensive skills across the board, but the good news is he started out above-average across the board. Haniger’s defense will further receive a boost as he’ll no longer be called upon to man center field with Kyle Lewis firmly ensconced there, allowing Mitch to settle in right, where his strong, accurate arm plays up. While Haniger will probably have to cede his early nickname “The Shed” to his teammate, the Actual Shed, it’s worth remembering he earned that nickname for having “all the tools.” Even if one part of Haniger’s game is slow to return after his long layoff, he has other skills to lean upon.

A complete player like Haniger simply doesn’t just disappear overnight, or even over the many, many nights it’s been since we saw Mitch suit up in a Seattle uniform. I am taking the way over on Haniger, like All-Star berth and Comeback Player of the Year over. Instead of The Shed or Mitch, I suggest “Ox” as a nickname for Haniger, as in 2021 is the year of the Ox; appropriate for a strong, steady, valuable worker like the even-keeled Mitch Haniger.

Taking the under: Connor

Let me preface this with my sincere hope that I am wrong. Meeshka was sorely missed in 2020; if he had been at full strength, or even contributed the 106 wRC+ he put up in 2019, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the M’s sneak into the expanded playoffs. His six-win season in 2018 was one of the brightest spots of that year, and he had all the makings of a perennial fan favorite and occasional All-Star before June 2019. I’d love nothing more than to see him come back and tear the cover off the ball in 2021, stick around in 2022, and help the team through its competitive window.

Unfortunately, I’m just not very optimistic that he will.

It’s a fair argument that Mitch’s strikeout jump in 2019 was a small sample blip, but other red flags lurked under the surface. His average exit velocity was down nearly two full MPH from 2018, which can be reasonably blamed on the core injuries he played through, but even scarier, his average launch angle leaped up to 18.2 degrees; five and a half higher than the 12.7 he posted the year before. While this helped him to a career-high ISO of .244 and HR/FB of an even 20%, he experienced a steep uptick in pop-ups, and that HR/FB was nearly five points above the league average across 2019, so regression may be on the horizon, especially if the ball changes at all in 2021. Breaking pitches also ate him alive; he slugged just .227 off of them in 2019, and an xSLG of .250 strongly suggests he just couldn’t barrel them up like he could in 2018, when he slugged almost 200 points higher off of breaking balls.

There’s also the obvious factor that any way you slice it, nearly two years is a hell of a lot of time to miss. I have no reason to believe that he isn’t fully healthy at this point, and the fact that his lower half (minus one very conspicuous example) remained unscathed gives me a lot of hope that his solid right field defense will make a comeback. Unfortunately, swing timing can take a while to find itself again after missing that much time, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him swing through a good deal of hittable pitches, even if the overall plate discipline stays strong. With a full season on the docket in 2021, a week-long slump thankfully won’t be as magnified as it was during the 60-game sprint, but I have a hard time looking at his batted ball trends from 2019 combined with the extended missed time and seeing him approach the ~130 wRC+ he put up through 2017-18.

I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that we might see a redux of Corey Hart, who also missed a ton of time before catching on with the M’s in 2014 and falling flat on his face after years of solid production. Although I’d be surprised if Mitch struggled as much as Hart did (71 wRC+, -0.9 fWAR, and zero defensive ability thanks to multiple knee injuries across 255 plate appearances. In a year where they missed that playoffs by one game. Yikes!), it’s tough for me not to draw a parallel or two. That being said, I expect his glove and power to give him a decent boost, even if the strikeout issues persist, and certainly don’t believe he’ll be at replacement level. I just don’t see him cracking two wins in 2021, especially if he gets hurt again, and that’s a bummer to think about. Let’s all hope my fears are unfounded!

Poll

Mitch Haniger: over or under 2.0 WAR in 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 80%
    Taking the over
    (648 votes)
  • 19%
    Taking the under
    (161 votes)
809 votes total Vote Now