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Mariner of the month: Thank heaven for Mitches Haniger

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You probably already know that Haniger was the Mariners’ best hitter in May, but let’s look at by how much

Cleveland Indians v Seattle Mariners
Mitch, hitting that pitch
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

There is a tired joke I make on Twitter every time Mitch Haniger does something good:

Aside from clarifying the important grammatical note that it would be Mitches Haniger, not Hanigers, similar to Attorneys General, beneath this jokey facade is a very real longing for the Mariners to have a lineup that, if not nine Mitches deep, at least featured players the average fan would be able to pick out of a lineup, and if not that, infielders playing in the dirt and outfielders playing the outfield. Yet even this simple request has been, in Mark Twain’s phrasing, flung down and danced upon by the Seattle Mariners, and the result has been some painful baseball to watch on both sides of the ball.

But not Mitch Haniger, the Mariners’ own Bay Area-born golden boy. Statcast isn’t high on Mitch’s defense, rating him as just middling in Outfielder Jump and in the bottom quartile for Outs Above Average, and he’s currently at -3 Defensive Runs Saved, which would be his lowest mark as a pro. And maybe Haniger’s defense has taken a step back as he re-adjusts to playing every day for the first time since his injury-shortened 2019 season. But also, when my eyes light upon Mitch Haniger roaming right field, the signal that gets sent to my brain is “that is an outfielder playing the outfield,” and the sense of comfort that conveys cannot be measured by Statcast.

Also though, put this in your pipe and smell ya later, defensive metrics:

Is this the world’s most difficult catch? I don’t have the catch probability numbers but I’m going to say no. But it’s a catch an outfielder should and does make, because that outfielder is Mitch Haniger. Statcast will tell you that this catch had less than a 7% swing in the game, pushing the A’s chance of winning the game from 22.6% down to 15.8%; Mariners fans watching the bottom of the eighth end with a tenuous 4-3 lead still intact will tell you this catch meant much more. (In addition to preserving the lead, this catch also meant that the lineup didn’t turn over in the 9th, giving Rafael Montero the bottom third of the lineup and two quick outs in Pinder and Kemp before struggling with Andrus and Canha, then mercifully getting a game-ending groundout from Seth Brown.)

But as satisfying as it is to watch Mitch Haniger in the outfield, consisting as he does entirely of certified Outfielder-grade parts and not a souped-up Dylan Moore jury-rigged to play left field, it’s Haniger’s bat that makes him truly invaluable to this team, especially in a lineup that features, at any given time, at least two of the following: light-hitting journeyman infielders, likely playing out of position; rookies of all ages still trying to figure out which way is up in the Show; and players who have scrapped their way to the bigs by being willing to crouch on the ground for hours at a time while high-speed projectiles are hurled at their tender bits. Blessings upon all of them and their various routes to the bigs, but also, much as I am sick of living in unprecedented times, I’m tired of watching unprecedented lineups. It would sure be fun to have a team setting records for offensive categories rather than things like “number of players used in a season” or “most time spent in the minors before making an MLB debut.” Much like the presence of Haniger in the outfield triggers the reassuring “that’s an outfielder” sensation in my brain, Haniger in the box triggers a similar, “that’s a professional hitter” response.

Mitch Haniger at-bats are exciting, but they’re also relaxing. Every time Haniger steps to the plate, he does so with a plan. Haniger’s plan might not work every time, because that’s baseball, but day after day, you see him executing that plan and sticking with his approach, to a near-maniacal degree:

Even though he’s striking out and walking at about his career rates (23% and 7.5%, respectively), Haniger’s average is down a bit so far this season compared to his All-Star season when he hit .285. This year, however, Haniger is hitting for significantly more power in a time when offense is depressed across the league; as Tim pointed out, he’s on pace for a Nelson Cruz-type home run total this season, and his isolated power mark of .280 is his best since...well since his .244 mark in 2019, when he had also hit 15 homers by about this number of plate appearances. Haniger has 60 more PAs and then he can tie or exceed that number, and he’s already hit as many doubles as he did in 2019 in fewer plate appearances, suggesting that this power increase is no early-season flash in the pan but the result of a concentrated approach, as Ryan Blake illustrates above.

Haniger’s offensive power-up couldn’t come at a better time for the noodle-batted 2021 Mariners. Haniger slugged .539 in May, and his .542 overall is 16th-best in baseball, higher than traditional power threats like Yordan Alvárez, José Abreu, or the aforementioned beloved Nelson Cruz. Haniger’s 137 wRC+ in May is 58th best in baseball, and first on the Mariners; Kyle Lewis is second, with a May wRC+ of 124, and then there is quite a dropoff. The next most-valuable Mariner by wRC+ in May is...Dylan Moore (104 wRC+), who hasn’t played since May 18. Every other Mariner is below 100. Without Haniger’s steadying force in the lineup providing bursts of pop, it’s hard to see this team finishing May at .500, or anywhere near to it.

The Mariners farm has an exciting crop of young talent, but Mitch Haniger is here, and he’s perfect. Despite some bad-luck injuries, Haniger has dedicated himself to not just healing his body but studying how to make his particular arrangement of cells the most effective baseball-hitting machine on the planet. He pitches in with community outreach events and his work ethic is unmatched. You wouldn’t necessarily look at Nelson Cruz and Mitch Haniger and see the same player, but Haniger is decidedly Cruz-like in his fanatical preparation, high baseball IQ, and now, on-field results. Even an organization as commitment-shy as the Mariners should be doing whatever it can to keep Mitch Haniger in a Seattle Mariners uniform as long as possible. Extend Mitch Haniger.