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Mitch Haniger is just getting started

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I keep telling myself 31 is the new 21

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

2021 was a joyous reminder of what Mitch Haniger is capable of. After suffering through no, we will not go there, Haniger became the pillar and essence of the Seattle Mariners, helping carry the team’s lineup from the cold cement basement floor to the second rickety, wooden step on the proverbial stairwell of stick-hits-ball purgatory. Make no mistake, without Haniger last season, either by way of past precedent like injury or otherwise, the Mariners’ lineup would have floundered to another bottom-of-the-league performance in most offensive categories. But this is not to lament what the team reluctantly flirted with, it is to celebrate what Haniger was, and remarkably, what Haniger could still become.

Let us reminisce in 2017. A bright-eyed, gleeful-smiling Haniger made the Opening Day roster for Seattle after spending his young career tinkering in Milwaukee and Arizona. He came largely as an enigma to fans, but also a spade up Jerry Dipoto’s sleeve. The deal with the Diamondbacks centered around Jean Segura, but inside company walls, Haniger was long thought to be Seattle’s prize.

“There’s not much left for him to do in the Minor Leagues,” Dipoto said following the deal. “You can’t have a better year than he just experienced. We see Haniger as a high ceiling prospect who projects to join our outfield as soon as next season.”

It was music to fans’ ears who hadn’t quite stomached the idea of 150 games of Danny Valencia in right field.

Haniger burst onto the scene during his age-26 rookie season, slashing .282/.352/.491 with 16 homers, posting a 129 wRC+ and contributing 2.5 fWAR to the Mariners cause. He followed with a full 2018 campaign, slashing .285/.366/.493 with 26 more dingers and stalwart defense in right field. His 137 wRC+ and 4.5 fWAR earned him 11th place in MVP voting. He was inarguably one of the best outfielders in the game. But 2019 was derailed by the aforementioned injury woes, and he missed all of 2020 as well getting his body right.

2021 was a gangbusters campaign for Haniger in so many ways. For one, he stayed healthy, but having missed 20 months of baseball and coming back to post a 2.8 fWAR season with 39 bombs is nothing short of remarkable. I think there’s more to come.

Haniger will 31 years old in 2022, squarely on the backend of his prime baseball years. You could certainly make the argument his “prime” will be extended a bit as there’s not as much tread on his legs as there is for others his age. Depends on what you’d classify as traditional tread. Haniger’s focus in recovery has centered around mobility, core strength and longevity. He wants to stay limber and athletic, two things he hopes can help prolong his career. Being 31 myself, I can’t help but subscribe to the idea (and his venerable hope defying father time in general).

From this chair, Haniger wore down more than others toward the back-half of the 2021 campaign. Now you can say that about any player in the throes of seven straight months of ball, but I think it was especially true for Haniger. His body wasn’t used to the rigors of the game. His production hardly wavered, but in looking at the film and underlying metrics, it was clear he had slowed, but impressively adapted.

The Haniger of April and May was youthful, light on his feet with bounce in the field. He had a markedly quicker bat. He stayed compact and inside the baseball much longer. His hands were more assertive through the zone and his bat speed, especially to the opposite field, is noticeably more impactful. Haniger’s longest home runs of the season came in March and April, the coldest months of the season, but the months where his body was still fresh.

As Seattle worked their way through the season, Haniger made his money by getting extended earlier in his swing, catching the ball out in front with more authority and relying on his bat-to-ball skills to drive the baseball, rather than leaning so hard on reactive hands and pure strength. He found value by lifting the baseball rather than working to overtly stay up the middle. We’re talking about a guy who went from a 36.8 percent fly ball rate during the first half of the season, to an astounding 45.4 percent rate in the second half. Haniger was looking to drive the ball over the fence.

This batted-ball approach will certainly lead to more home runs, though Haniger’s batting average fell 14 points in the second half and his K-rate jumped from 23.8 percent to 25.2 percent. Whether by design or happenstance, Haniger became more of a slugger and less of a pure hitter during the summer months. His BABIP (.282) suffered because of it. There’s your low-hanging fruit.

Perhaps no better case study suggesting a blistering 2022 comes by how his body responded coming out of the All-Star Break in 2021. After getting an entire week off to rest, Haniger’s first week back included a .304/.385/.739 slash, a 203 wRC+ with three homers and a batted-ball profile with 95 mph average exit velocities. An obscene micro-sample for sure, but interesting anecdotally, nonetheless.

With another year of physical fitness focusing on longevity, mobility, twitch and athleticism, Haniger may be positioning himself for a more consistent 2022 campaign with the bat. The consistently quick hands should resurface this spring, generating his ability to stay up the middle of the field and keep the lineup moving with more frequency. Haniger has never geared to explicitly label himself an all-or-nothing slugger, and I don’t think that’s the player arc he’s in store for, at least not in the immediacy. If you can buy into the narrative he’s again comfortable with his baseball feet back under him, it could be a season of career-redefinition for the auspicious outfielder, vaulting himself inside the Top 15 position players to ever lace up cleats in the Pacific Northwest.