It’s never easy to call a fan favorite anything other than the greatest player of all-time. Well today, we discuss an uncomfortable truth that many Mariners fans don’t want to hear: Mitch Haniger isn’t as good as you think.
As is often the case with articles such as this, I want to make one thing clear, right off the top: I’m not saying Haniger is a bad player. He isn’t. He’s got a great arm and big time power. He’s playable in right field and he’s a solid base-runner. But what Mitch Haniger isn’t, is a star. And yet a quick glimpse around Mariners twitter would have you believe otherwise.
Again, Mitch Haniger is a good player. He’s got a 120 wRC+ and is on pace for a solid 2.7-3.0 WAR season. But he isn’t irreplacable. He’s not somebody Seattle needs to extend at all cost. And what is more, he’s not a long-term fixture with the Mariners. The 30-year-old is facing some obvious trend issues that don’t figure to get much better anytime soon and the narrative currently praises Haniger as the player he was in 2017 and 2018… but he isn’t.
People rave about Haniger’s outfield defense and the truth is that he is, at best, fringe-average and it’s trending down. His strong arm and solid fundamentals keep him a viable option out there, but he’s not good, and he never really was. At his best, his defense was average. A 30-year-old typically don’t get better defensively as they age, particularly one who already plays in a corner.
Haniger is also facing some concerning offensive trends. In 2018, his best season, Haniger ranked in the 69th percentile in BB%, 56th in whiff percentage, and 80th in chase percentage. In short, Haniger was a disciplined hitter who knew the strike zone and rarely went after pitchers pitches. But now, Haniger ranks in the 20th percentile in BB%, 28th percentile in whiff rate, and the 37th percentile in chase rate.
In short, Haniger has gone from a patient hitter who took walks and never expanded the strike zone to a guy who walks to the plate ready to swing at anything close to the plate. The OBP drop alone would tell you this was likely happening, having dropped from .366 in 2018, to .314 in 2019, to .311 in 2021. Since May 1st, Haniger is slashing .248/.308/.462, good for a 114 wRC+.
Now his defenders will rightfully point out that Haniger did miss 18 months with a variety of injuries, which could help explain some things. They’re not wrong, but we’re 2.5 full seasons away from the Haniger some fans believe he still is and we’re almost a full 162 games played for Haniger since 2018 and the trend is clear.
Haniger can still handle the fastball and breaking ball, but he’s actually struggling mightily against changeups and splitters, thanks largely to a concerted effort to max out his power. Haniger’s pull rate is an astonishing 47.6%. To put that into perspective, Joey Gallo’s career pull rate is 47.5%. Haniger isn’t using the middle of the field, seeing the percentage of batted balls going up the middle by 8% since 2018.
This looks and feels like a player selling out most of his skill set to maximize his power, which has increased the numbers of home runs, but has come at the heavy expense of on-base percentage. So we have a player who is continually expanding the zone, become more pull heavy, and is declining defensively. Those are facts.
I want to wrap up this article be reiterating what I said off the top: Mitch Haniger is a good player. However, he isn’t a star, nor is he somebody the Mariners have to or should build around. He hasn’t been that guy since 2018. Keeping Haniger around for the 2021 season isn’t a bad idea. But trading him isn’t necessarily a bad idea either. Haniger can help this Mariners team, but so too can many other players. Haniger is still good. Just not as good as you want to believe he is.