When Mitch Haniger last appeared in a regular season game for the Seattle Mariners in June 2019, he was Seattle’s best player. Nearly two years later, Haniger may reclaim the “best Mariner” mantle in 2021.
To some of you, the notion of Haniger having a better year than the Mariners’ growing stable of young studs sounds a bit far-fetched. Plus, there’s his health. Injuries, surgeries, and rehab setbacks have sidelined the Cal Poly product since June 6, 2019. And let’s not forget Haniger was having a subpar season when we last saw him. So, what’s driving my seemingly inane optimism in the face of everything I just mentioned?
Two assumptions. Haniger is healthy and will remain so – there’s no reason to believe otherwise. A player of his ilk is able to identify and correct whatever was causing his below-average offensive production in 2019.
Since I’m not a doctor and just a dumb blogger, I focused on Haniger’s 2019 statistics rather than his physical readiness. When doing so, I kept running across indicators suggesting swing mechanics may have played a central role in his down year. Again, I’m the dumb stats guy, not a hitting guru. But that was my takeaway.
To see what I mean, let’s start by comparing Haniger’s offensive production at the time of his injury in 2019 to previous years. Very quickly, we see several things amiss.
A Spike In Strikeouts
After a breakout campaign in 2017, Haniger demonstrated even greater growth the following year with his first All-Star selection and an eleventh-place finish in MVP voting. Unfortunately, a spike in strikeouts sparked noticeable declines in every slash category in 2019.
In 25 of Haniger’s 63 games in 2019, he struck out two-or-more times. By contrast, the right-handed hitter achieved this dubious milestone 35 times in 157 games the year prior and 27 times in 96 contests during the 2017 season. Strikeouts were definitely a problem for Haniger in 2019.
Some of you may suggest strikeouts have been trending upwards across MLB over the last decade and Haniger’s spike in 2019 was a reflection of league-wide trends. It’s true the league’s strikeout rate has risen from 18.1-percent in 2011 to 23.4-percent last year. But strikeouts only increased by 0.7-percent across the majors in 2018-19. Haniger’s rate jumped nearly ten times that. Something else was going on with the Mariners’ right fielder.
Dropping Contact Rates, Especially On Chase Pitches
When we turn our attention to Haniger’s plate discipline numbers, we see a potential smoking gun to his sudden rise in strikeouts.
In 2017-19, Haniger’s swing rates remained relatively stable whether he was targeting pitches in the strike zone or “chase” pitches off the plate. It’s worth noting the Californian didn’t expand the strike zone during his suboptimal 2019. When he went down in June, his 24.9-percent chase rate was 30th lowest among qualified MLB hitters.
|In-Zone Swing %|
|Zone Contact %|
|Chase Contact %|
Still, we do see a negative turn with Haniger’s contact rates. The steepest decline coming on chase pitches. In 2018-19, the league-average chase contact rate hovered around 63-percent. In 2018, Haniger was just below average. But a year later, his 53.6-percent chase contact rate ranked 140th among 162 qualified hitters.
Less Grounders, More Unproductive Airborne Balls
When Haniger did make contact in 2019, he wasn’t generating enough line drives. The following illustrates the fifth-year major leaguer’s rates for ground balls, line drives, fly balls, and pop-ups. Also included, the MLB average for each category in 2020.
Haniger’s rates were stable between 2017 and 2018, almost identical. But there were significant changes the following season. In a vacuum, a drop in ground balls sounds appealing. That’s until we notice he hit fewer line drives with significant climbs in fly balls and useless pop-ups.
Just how important are line drives to Haniger or any hitter? Our next table answers that question by showing the distribution of doubles and home runs, plus the slash line success based on type of batted ball.
Intuitively, we know line drives are great. But the differences between the outcome of liners compared to other batted balls is starker than some fans may realize. As you can see, some value can be derived from flyballs. But mostly on home runs and a relatively low number of extra base hits. If it’s not a dinger, a flyball more likely leads to an out than an on-base event.
Ground balls can lead to runners on base, but not often enough. This is why consistently hitting grounders isn’t the strategy of big-league batters. The least fruitful batted ball is the pop-up. It’s almost as statistically ineffective to an offense as a strikeout.
Missed It By That Much
Based on his swing-and-miss problems and drop in well-struck balls in 2019, it seems reasonable Haniger’s issues could boil down to not finding the ball with the ‘sweet spot” of his bat often enough. If there was only a metric measuring this. Oh wait, there is.
Naturally, the smart people at Baseball Savant found a way to quantify sweet spot success. Sweet Spot percentage (SwSp%) quantifies how often a hitter produces batted-ball events with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. Balls hit within the sweet spot range create those very favorable line drives at a very high rate.
With Haniger, we know his line drive rate dropped significantly in 2019 compared to the year prior when he was an All-Star. As you may have expected by now, the delta in his annual sweet spot percentage aligned with the decline in liners he experienced.
The following illustrates Haniger’s sweet spot percentages in 2017-19, plus the MLB average for last season. After being above the league average in 2017-18, Haniger’s SwSp% was down nearly five points before he went to the IL in June 2019.
To be clear, a high SwSp% doesn’t guarantee success. But striking the ball on the sweet spot is an essential element of making consistent quality contact. The amount of contact made is paramount also. Optimally, a hitter produces a smooth blend of quality and quantity – pitchers would prefer the opposite. In Haniger’s case, the negative delta in his SwSp% between the 2017-18 seasons and 2019 was the core issue – not the actual number itself.
Not The First Time Haniger Scuffled
It’s important to remember a key truth easily overlooked if we myopically stare at Statcast without context. Haniger’s 2019 season was a small-sample size – just 63 games. He may have corrected course if it weren’t for his season-ending injury.
Haniger was slashing .244/.331/.520 with seven home runs and a 127 OPS+ in 142 plate appearances through the end of April 2019. It was after this point, in May-June, when his productivity went sideways.
With this in mind, I searched for a period of similar length when Haniger scuffled in a comparable manner and then rebounded. I found one in his first year as a Mariner – June 23 through August 31, 2017.
The numbers aren’t identical. Haniger struck out at a much higher rate in 2019, although he did earn many more free passes and hit for more power. But both periods were tough stretches for a player normally associated with top-shelf production.
It’s worth noting Haniger missed time during the 2017 period after Jacob DeGrom of the Mets buzzed a fastball off his face. He’d bounce back in September capping off the season with seven home runs and a .353/.374/.613 slash line. Haniger’s September surge foreshadowed his outstanding 2018 campaign.
Best Mariner, Again?
For some, the sexy picks for best Mariner in 2021 will be shiny new names such as Kyle Lewis, Ty France, Taylor Trammell, and Jarred Kelenic. But don’t sleep on Haniger. Remember, he possesses something the youngsters don’t have yet – a proven record of sustained success in the majors.
The issues at the heart of Haniger’s troubles in 2019 seem correctable to me, especially by such a talented and intense player with a legendary work ethic. As we’ve noted, it’s plausible he would’ve fixed himself with the benefit of time in 2019. Unfortunately, the injury bug had other plans.
Since Cactus League stats are fool’s gold, it’ll be well into the regular season before we can reasonably assess how Haniger and his young teammates are performing in 2021. Regardless of how the upcoming season goes, it’ll be fun watching the Mariners’ youngsters arrive and attempt to thrive at the big-league level. Still, in this instance, I prefer age and experience over youth and potential.
My preseason pick for best player on the Mariners in 2021 is Mitch Haniger.
My Oh My…
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