The Mariners haven’t been particularly good, but they also haven’t been particularly bad. The White Sox, though, have been particularly bad and are currently 5-15. The Mariners got absolutely steamrolled by the White Sox on Monday to the tune of 4-10, and Tuesday eeked out a 1-0 win. The Mariners, for the most part, failed to do anything noteworthy.
Except, there was one thing. Mitch Haniger hit a single. There wasn’t anything especially notable about it, other than it scored the game’s lone run. In fact, Haniger has been driving in a lot of runs lately. If you’ll remember, Haniger was the proud owner of a 1.054 OPS through March and April last year, until a Grade 2 oblique strain sidelined him. What he was doing pre-injury probably wasn’t sustainable, but Hanny never seemed fully healthy until the last month of the year.
This year, it seems like Hanny may be able to keep it up. From 4/3/17 to 4/23/17, he slashed .325/.435/.597 with a .434 wOBA and 180 wRC+. From 3/29/18 to today, Hanny is slashing .321/.389/.692 with a .449 wOBA and 189 wRC+ on the season. Clearly he can’t keep up this pace, but his peripherals suggest that he’s earned everything he’s produced thus far.
Last year’s hot start was buoyed by an inflated .396 BABIP, suggesting a little bit of good luck. This year, he owns a .327 BABIP, which is just a touch above his career .319 BABIP. Haniger also has an xBABIP (expected BABIP) of .290, so there may be a few more balls that have fallen in for hits than there should have been, however, xBABIP isn’t perfect.
As I’ve mentioned before, xwOBA uses Statcast’s exit velocity and launch angle data to measure what a player’s wOBA should be. Mitch Haniger owns the 8th highest xwOBA in the MLB at .465. After today’s game, Haniger’s wOBA is .461, meaning he isn’t necessarily playing over his head right now. He’s just hitting the ball really hard. So hard that he’s in a virtual tie with Mookie Betts and Eric Thames for 13th highest average exit velocity in the MLB at 92.8 mph. Holy cow.
There are a couple of things going in. First and foremost, Hanny is healthy. Oblique injuries are known to be a huge pain in the neck, and it’s clear that his swing was impacted by his injuries last year.
Second, Haniger is lifting the ball more than ever. In 2017, Hanny’s average launch angle was 10.6 degrees. That’s… not very high. This year, Hanny’s average launch angle is 19.4 degrees, good for 20th in the MLB. For reference, the average launch angle in the MLB in 2017 was 11.1. That’s a substantial difference, and significantly higher than notorious fly ball hitters like Trevor Story, Justin Smoak, and Eric Thames. In other words, Haniger might be buying into the so-called fly ball revolution. However, with just 90 plate appearances, it could also be too small of a sample to draw meaningful conclusions from.
Again, it’s not very far into the year, but the amount of fly balls per ball in play have increased significantly this year with both hard and breaking pitches.
There is one place in which Haniger is sure to regress. Haniger’s 29.6% HR/FB is about 12% higher than his career average, and it shouldn’t be much higher than 20%. This means that Hanny’s fly balls are inevitably going to start being caught by outfielders instead of going over the fence, but it would be ludicrous to expect Haniger to continue to hit at a clip 89% above league average.
Another form of forthcoming regression is in strength of opposition. To date, Haniger’s oppRPA+ (opponent’s run per plate appearance) is 92, or 8% below league average. This means that Haniger has faced competition that is a slightly below average. Going forward, Haniger may face stronger pitchers than he has up until this point.
As of right now, Mitch Haniger is 8th in the MLB with a 1.3 WAR. Just as he’s done before, Hanny is knocking the cover off the ball. What Haniger has not done before is hit the ball in the air at this rate. It remains to be seen how pitchers will adjust to him. What we know for sure is that Hanny has been one of the best players in the league this year. He’s hitting the ball at a higher angle than Aaron Judge, as hard as Eric Thames, and he’s been more productive than Bryce Harper. Sure I’m cherry picking hot, sexy household names, but maybe Mitch Haniger is on his way to becoming one.