The Pitch for Mitch Haniger as a Top-Tier Asset
Everybody loves a good prodigy. The Bryce Harper/Aaron Judge types that burst onto the scene or the palpable buzz surrounding hot prospects like Ronald Acuna. Those players are splashy and exciting, fun to own and to watch play baseball. Their aura is so loud that there’s no debate about whether they’re an upper-echelon fantasy player; they’ve just been in the club from day one. And while much of the paparazzi-esque flash remains on those players, Mitch Haniger snuck around the mayhem and walked right in. Few seem to have seen his arrival, but Haniger’s a top-30 caliber outfielder right now.
The Tale of the Tape – Statistical Review
Drafted by Milwaukee as the 37th pick in 2012, Haniger never received much buzz on industry prospect lists. After a trade to Arizona and a slow climb up the minor league ladder, Haniger began making waves in 2016. He crushed Double-A and Triple-A to the tune of a .321 batting average with 25 home runs, 94 RBI, and 12 stolen bases over 129 games. That earned the late bloomer a 34-game taste of the major leagues and some pub as a sleeper for 2017. Being dealt from pre-humidor Arizona to the less hitter-friendly Safeco Field did little to dampen optimism, as Haniger made for a popular late-round pick in redraft leagues.
He made those owners look smart as well with a blistering start to the season. Unfortunately, Haniger caught the injury bug and lost six weeks due to a strained oblique. He struggled to hit upon his return from the DL, then got crunched in the face with a Jacob deGrom fastball. A mild concussion, small facial fracture, and three weeks later, Haniger finished the season with a vengeance. Here’s a quick breakdown of his season:
April 3 – April 25 (95 PA): .342/.447/.608 with 4 HR, 16 RBI, 20 Runs, and a 21.1 K%
June 11- July 29 (152 PA): .203/.303/.316 with 3 HR, 8 RBI, 16 Runs, and a 24.3 K%
(Fastball to Face)
August 19 – Oct 1 (163 PA): .318/.344/.580 with 9 HR, 23 RBI, 22 Runs, and a 22.1 K%
One of these stat lines is not like the others. If I were a betting man, I’d have to say that the oblique was still bothering Haniger during the summer. Or maybe he was battling a rookie funk while trying to get back in the groove. It’s easy to forget that late bloomers have to deal with the MLB learning curve too. While it’s dangerous to combine the first and last stat lines and extrapolate that into a full season, it’s clear that Haniger has the skills to thrive against major league pitching.
The Tale of the Tape – Skills
The first thing to note about Haniger is his patient approach to hitting. He swung at 24.5% of pitches thrown outside the strike zone in 2017, an excellent chase rate for an inexperienced hitter. That pitch recognition is backed up by his 10.2% walk rate and .370 OBP in his minor league career. Despite Seattle having two great table setters in Dee Gordon and Jean Segura, Haniger would make for a viable top-of-the-order bat thanks to his on-base ability. He did hit in the two-hole in 55 games last year, a slot that seemed to agree with him (.318/.401/.562 with 11 HR and 5 steals hitting from that spot).
His approach does more than help him score runs, as he waits for the right pitch to drive. That plays up his above-average power, which is evidenced by his exit velocity (93.1 MPH on FB/LD) and his home run per fly ball rate (career 15.4%). He also normally hits plenty of fly balls to help maximize his power potential. I say “normally” because last year was his first as a professional where he hit more grounders (44.0%) than fly balls (36.7%). Unless he’s made a concrete adjustment, I’d expect those numbers to flip-flop, making Haniger even more of a power threat.
Something that separates Haniger from other mashers is his ability to make contact. His 79% contact rate last year may not look that exciting, but here are some other names at 79% – Correa, Yelich, Machado, and Abreu. Three of those players have .300 BA seasons under their belt with the other (Machado) notching a career-best .294. Haniger is a career .289 hitter in the minors and can maintain that ability at the sport’s highest level. He also has some wheels and can sprinkle in a handful of steals (think 6-10 tops).
Haniger’s Crystal Ball
Over his 140 games in the majors, Haniger has a .270 BA with 23 HR, 72 RBI, 72 Runs and 5 SB. That’s pretty fantastic for a player that hasn’t even played a full year’s worth of games yet. Just ten games into 2018, Haniger has been improving even more. The 27-year-old’s strikeout rate is down to 14.8%, with his walk rate elevating to 17.6%. He’s also swatting .273/.419/.485 with 2 home runs and 8 RBI. The early signs continue to point up.
If he stays healthy, think along the lines of Eddie Rosario’s 2017 season (.290 with 27 HR, 78 RBI, 79 Runs, and 9 SB). You don’t have a squint hard to see Haniger reaching those stats. Oh, Rosario was a top-30 outfielder last year. Haniger does have 95% ownership in Fantrax leagues, but just 76% in ESPN and 62% in Yahoo. Go out and own him! What, you’re in an NL-only league? Excuses.
For those who still aren’t convinced and are somehow still reading my nonsense, I’ll leave you with a fun fact. In 2017, there were 19 players who achieved a .350 OBP, .200 ISO, and a swinging strike rate below 9% (min. 400 PA). I’ll let you guess whether Mitch Haniger was one of those 19. (Hint: this isn’t a random stat in a Mitch Haniger article).