How Good Is Mitch Haniger?

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Through twenty-three games of the long and winding one hundred and sixty-two game season, the unlikely Seattle Mariner leading the team in fWAR is none other than break out candidate Mitch Haniger. When I brought Haniger up a few weeks ago in my long-time fantasy league for a buck (I was low on money late in the auction), a newbie asked, “who?” One of the older members of the league replied, “an outfielder for the Mariners who’s going to have a kick ass season.” Turns out, at least so far, that he was right.

Among AL offensive players, Haniger ranks 11th in fWAR with 1.2, two spots above his teammate Robinson Cano, who sits at 1.0 fWAR. This is some rarified air, with the likes of Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Aaron Judge in second, third, and fourth, respectively, and the newest of Bronx Bombers, shortstop Didi Gregorius, leading the way at 2.2. Haniger currently stands five spots above last season’s AL MVP, Jose Altuve of the World Series Champion Houston Astros.

Haniger, who was sort of considered a throw in back in the 2016 off-season when GM Jerry Dipoto dealt righty Taijuan Walker for shortstop Jean Segura, has hit .305/.372/.659 with 8 HR and a 177 wRC+. Also, of note, while in the small sample size, Haniger’s K% has remained about the same as last season – 22.3% this season to 22.7% last season – but his walk rate has improved – 9.8% this season compared to 7.6% last season. That might help to explain the twenty-point higher OBP.

In the field, and it’s early, Haniger has accounted for 3 defensive runs saved (DRS) and has proven to be a significant upgrade over an everyday Nelson Cruz in the outfield. Just hit Boomstick. UZR is a little more conservative, awarding Haniger 1.3 runs prevented, but he does project out with UZR/150 for 12.6. Most analysts agree that 10 runs saved roughly translates to a win over the course of a season, so the Mariners will definitely appreciate that additional win Haniger’s glove brings in right field.

Why the Hot Start at the Plate?

The interesting thing about Haniger at the plate is that there doesn’t seem to be that much different in his approach, but he’s ironically making LESS contact. For his career, Haniger has swung at 27.0% of pitches out of the strike zone. This season he’s swinging at 27.4% – just SSS noise. In the zone, historically he’s swung at 59.4% of pitches. This season 62.7%. On pitches outside the zone, Haniger has historically made contact 57.4% of the time, while this season he’s putting bat to ball 54.9% of the time. Balls in the zone reflect a similar trend. Over his short career, Haniger has made contact on 89.0% of his swings. This season that number has ticked down slightly to 86.9%.

One possible explanation of the early success may be that Haniger is killing lefthanded pitching. While the majority of his HR (6 to 2) have come off of righties, as a result of there just being more right-handed pitchers, his slash line is remarkably better against lefties. In his 65 PA against right handers, Haniger is hitting .286/.354/643 for an OPS of .997. That’s nuts in and of itself. But against lefties in 29 PA, he’s hitting .346/.414/692 for an OPS of 1,106.

Over at Baseball Savant, the only publicly available Statcast data source, it shows that Haniger is destroying left handers who leave the ball up and in the middle. The exit velocity in that zone is a red hot 102.8 mph. That’s a full 12.5 mph difference when the pitch comes from a right hander. The inner third has also been a feasting ground for Haniger against southpaws, sending the ball the other way at 95.7 mph, compared to 85.7 mph in the same location from a right hander.

Small Sample Size, but Still Fun

Ultimately, Mitch Haniger’s sizzling start is probably both the product of a small sample size and getting more acclimated to the big leagues, with the greater part of the weight going to SSS. But, just like with wins banked – think of the advantage the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets have gained with their hot starts – WAR is a cumulative measurement and the early part of the season counts just as much as later parts of the season. Haniger now has a very legitimate shot at being a borderline 4.0 WAR player for the season.

All the major projection systems have Haniger with a wRC+ of anywhere from 113 to 119 for the remainder of the season. Now, that ain’t 177, but Haniger isn’t Barry Bonds either. No matter how the season turns out – and it’s a long season – Haniger’s back to back to back jacks in three straight games will be on the highlight real for 2018. And, as reports of Taijuan Walker’s successful Tommy John surgery this month fade into the recesses of baseball memory, the name that might resound in the Walker for Segura trade is Mitch Haniger.


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About Brian Hight 109 Articles
Brian Hight lives in Seattle and writes primarily about MLB and the local Seattle Mariners, with a focus on advanced analytics. Occasionally, he delves into the NFL and the NBA, also with an emphasis on advanced statistics. He’s currently pursuing a Certificate in Data Analysis online from Microsoft, where he hopes to create a prediction model for baseball outcomes for his capstone project.