Mitch Haniger Struggling to Bring More Than Power to Mariners Lineup

SEATTLE, WA - APRIL 14: Mitch Haniger #17 of the Seattle Mariners scores on a double off the bat of Domingo Santana in the third inning against the Houston Astros at T-Mobile Park on April 14, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - APRIL 14: Mitch Haniger #17 of the Seattle Mariners scores on a double off the bat of Domingo Santana in the third inning against the Houston Astros at T-Mobile Park on April 14, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

The Mariners star outfielder has been productive in 2019 but he’s a different player at the plate.

NOTE: This was posted on behalf of Kevaghn Hinckley, who is the author of this article.

The Seattle Mariners have been free falling in the standings, and amid the instigating and a distracting carousel of incompetency, the struggles of their best player – Mitch Haniger – have flowed in and out of the collective consciousness of fans with every 0-for and every home run.

While there is no hiding from a .228 batting average, Haniger still has a .802 OPS and has launched 12 home runs so far in 2019. He has been a key component of the Mariners offense, and in some ways, it feels like he just hasn’t stayed hot yet — like his streakiness has been just too streaky this year.

In other ways, this iteration of Mitch Haniger is not quite the one we knew nor the one
we expected.

Through roughly one-third of a season, Haniger is on pace to slam 37 homers with a 116 wRC+ and solid enough defense to be worth 3-4 wins. And although that is inarguably good, with an elevated strikeout rate and deflated average, it has represented a curious follow up to a 4.6 fWAR/5.5 rWAR/3.9 WARP season.

It’s hard to express disappointment in a productive year so far, but this new look might
not be the best one for Mitch Haniger.

He’s hitting more fly balls

These days, we tend to assume hitting more fly balls is a positive development. More fly balls equal more home runs equals more production for the Mariners, right? That’s simple enough to follow, but it’s not as simple to execute.

Here are Haniger’s fly ball rates and average launch angles since he debuted with the
Mariners in 2017:
Year     PA    Fly Ball%  Launch Angle
2017   410    36.7%         10.6
2018   683    36.3%         12.7
2019   233    44.6%         17.9

At this point in the season, such a significant shift in batted ball profile would suggest a deliberate change in approach and the fastidiousness of Mitch Haniger makes that an even safer bet.

As I type, Haniger is on pace to trounce his career-high in home runs, top the 38 doubles he hit in 2018, and he has practically the same ISO as Edwin Encarnacion. Not bad for a guy who plays a pretty decent outfield too.

Whatever the explicit goal was, Haniger has succeeded in hitting for more power, but that’s not the only piece of the puzzle. This adjustment may have hurt his overall quality of contact.

Haniger has seen his average exit velocity revert to 2017 levels – around league average. That’s not a death sentence, yet his overall xwOBA on contact dropped from .438 last year to .380 this year (.370 average), and that is a straightforward translation of his batted balls.

Year    GB Pull% True IFFB%    Soft%    Medium%   Hard%
2017    62.8%       2.90%           17.7%     47.7%         34.7%
2018    65.3%       3.30%           16.0%     46.8%         37.1%
2019    72.0%       6.47%           21.6%     44.6%         33.8%

When he’s not launching extra-base hits, Haniger is rolling more groundballs to his pull side and popping up more infield fly balls, and both factors have contributed to a higher percentage of soft contact this year.

This (and more) is reflected in troublingly low expected numbers, as BaseballSavant pegs Haniger at a .210 xBA, .402 xSLG, and .309 xwOBA where .251, .408, and .318 are league average, respectively.

At .268, Haniger’s low BABIP could construe some poor luck still; however, an increase in fly balls coupled with those extra low-probability balls in play should shift our expectation below that of previous years.

And if that wasn’t enough… He’s striking out more. A 27.9% K% is a definite departure from previous years, and with some of Haniger’s overall production slipping, you could simply call it “selling out” for power. But you might be wrong.

Haniger may be striking out more but it’s possibly because he isn’t selling out. Rather, he may be getting too picky in trying to bring out his power.

Instead of trying to lift practically anything, Haniger has become even more selective at the plate, taking more pitches than ever before.

Year    SwStr%    K%        P/PA
2017     8.7%     22.7%    3.90
2018    9.2%      21.7%    3.98
2019    10.0%   27.9%    4.42

Haniger’s swinging strike rate has more-or-less increased nominally with the league average over the past couple of years, yet his strikeout rate jumped significantly only this year with much more pitches per plate appearance.

If you peruse any leaderboards, you’ll find that players with 10% swinging strike rates don’t usually strikeout 28% of the time. Even with contact rates around or slightly below average (such as Haniger’s), they’re typically within a few points of league average (22.5%) in K%.

Players who strike out more than you might expect based on their SwStr% often do so because they’re patient and regularly get deep into counts, and Mitch Haniger is unlikely to be an exception.

Compared to years past, he is now taking an extra pitch every other plate appearance. That may feel like a drop in the ocean, but at that rate, he could see upwards of 300 extra pitches per year.

This increased selectivity places Haniger’s whiffs later in at-bats and naturally, he has struck out more. There is surely more to his elevated strikeout rate than that, but the implication I want to make is that a difference in circumstance could be a prominent factor here.

All-in-all, you might want to say Haniger is a fly ball revolutionist who is just not firing on all cylinders (yet).

The intention to lift the ball may be driving great power numbers; however, with him and others Mariners, the tendency to wait for a pitch to elevate may be leading to more strikeouts. And together they could be contributing to less contact and poorer quality contact overall.

So while the homers and doubles keep coming, too many strikeouts and low probability balls in play figure to cap Haniger’s offensive production and likely cause him to run a little more hot and cold than we’re used to.

There is plenty more to observe, but at the end of the day, we must remember that Mitch Haniger is a very talented baseball player and that the first third of one year won’t completely determine his performance moving forward.

It’s worth reiterating that he is still on pace for a 3-4 WAR in a “down” year, but as important as the physical gifts keeping him afloat are, the personal makeup and drive that he has continually demonstrated should help him make successful adjustments.

Next. Austin Adams Finding His Stride. dark

He could find a way to squeeze greater production out of this approach; he may revert to his old plan of attack or try something entirely new. If he wants to do something differently, he will, and despite underwhelming underlying stats thus far, there’s a reason to believe that he will be successful doing so. After all, that’s what made Mitch Haniger an All-Star in the first place.

*All stats reference prior to games on 05-25-19