I wanted to write about Mitch Haniger Monday night. His heroic two-homer game lifted the Seattle Mariners into the mesosphere and I, like a chump, had two other articles on deadline and could not fit it in. I was disappointed, few things sting like missing the moment, taking the pitch for a strike when it was the one you know you needed to hit. Last night, however, Haniger had the courtesy to re-extend the invitation, gift-wrapped in another majestic round-tripper.
While longtime readers may be familiar with my affinity for Haniger, stretching back to the first days of his acquisition, I’m not too proud to say that I’ve loathed watching him hit at times this season. When Haniger swings and misses, few look worse, and his seeming penchant for chasing pitches others won’t is baffling considering his general excellence. His 24.2% strikeout rate is just one tick above league average, but it feels bad to watch someone who is ostensibly one of two and a half proven quality hitters in the Mariners lineup wave his bat impotently in the neighborhood of a slider a foot off the plate.
And yet... Haniger has balanced the ledger, and then some. One of just two position players on Seattle’s roster to have ever made an All-Star Game, and the only one to do so since 2014 (Kyle Seager, of course), Haniger’s solid 2021 season has been impossibly normal, and impeccably timely. The Opening Day outfield this spring was meant to be Mitch Haniger, Kyle Lewis, and Jake Fraley, who seemingly share a collective three and a half fully functional legs and lower bodies, swapping them at frequent intervals like The Fates and their eye. It did not work out that way, of course, and yet somehow, in late September, Mitch Haniger has eclipsed 150 games played. If things play out correctly, he’ll tie his career high of 157 games played, and remain in the Top-10 in the American League in plate appearances. The man who missed a season and a half with multiple surgeries, having lost previous seasons to hit by pitches and obliques and all manner of maladies has been Seattle’s rock. The man his teammates call “Our Champion” hasn’t been an MVP candidate, but he has been there more often than not, just when Seattle needed him.
I am a subscriber to the belief that measuring clutchness is a fool’s errand, even as I believe some players are better suited to success than others. There are as many ways to respond or cope with extreme pressure as there are human beings in the world, and what works for one person may not for another. Who knows if Haniger is one such person? While he has been brilliant in key moments his entire career with Seattle, what matters for these Mariners is that those wins he’s delivered unto them are banked, no matter whether it extends forward or not. 10 of Haniger’s 38(!) home runs this year have come in just 115 plate appearances in what would be considered “high leverage” situations. He’s been worth 2.6 fWAR, good enough for 72nd among qualified players in MLB, in the company of other solidly above-average players like J.D. Martinez, Pete Alonso, and Adolis García. And yet, Haniger is 35th in Win Probability Added, ahead of Nolan Arenado, Carlos Correa, and Trea Turner. When Haniger has been needed most, he has met the moment, whether it’s against Oakland, the A’s, or even the Athletics.
For Haniger, or perhaps even for the Mariners, it has been most special to simply see Haniger whole and healthy once more, playing consistently in a way that at times seemed impossible. After last night’s game, Shannon Drayer mentioned a quote from Haniger, usually stoic, when questioned by Ryan Divish about what the milestone of his 100th home run meant to him, as well as being a part of yet another victory. Drayer said Haniger was choked up, noting there were points in time in his road to recovery where he couldn’t walk, where things felt impossible, where he felt broken. There is, of course, no shame in embracing a new, altered reality physically, but for Haniger and the Mariners there is an extra layer of joy to see a player accomplishing goals that for a time seemed like a pipe dream. This entire season has been Mitch Haniger’s moment, to be an active, healthy participant is a reward unto itself. Lucky for us, he’s decided to make it something we can all enjoy.