It’s almost certainly too early to say that the Arizona Diamondbacks made another bad trade when they gave up Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger and Zac Curtis for Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte. Walker is in the big leagues and Marte is in Triple-A — with both off to nice starts this year, and are both obviously a part of the Diamondbacks’ long-term plans.
With that said, it probably doesn’t feel great to watch Haniger get off to this kind of blistering start. Segura has been quite good, as well, but Haniger is tearing the cover off the ball right now. He’s currently in the midst of a 13-game hitting streak, has a 197 wRC+ on the season, and ruined the Marlins’ collective no-hit bid with a rocket double just a couple of nights ago.
Haniger wasn’t well-known coming into this year. Outside of our little corner of the internet, most baseball fans wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about him. Heck, I’m not sure I could’ve told you much about him before he debuted in the big leagues with Arizona last September.
He had an excellent couple of years in 2015 and 2016, rocketing from High-A to the majors over that span of time. Still, he was generally old for those levels, as he was drafted after his junior year of college, and he was never a top prospect. The general consensus maintained that Haniger would be fourth outfielder.
As FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan unsurprisingly was the first to point out, however, Haniger had made some changes to both his approach and his swing that would lead you to believe that rather than being an older player taking advantage of less experienced competition, Haniger was legitimately good. Thus far, that analysis has been dead-on, and perhaps even a little bit conservative.
Safe to say, Haniger has been one of the best hitters in the majors thus far. Despite being someone whom scouts felt could play a passable center field, Haniger’s numbers would lead you to believe that he’s more of a hulking slugger than anything else. It turns out he might be both.
He’s succeeding at the Major League level in the same way he did at the upper levels of the minors: by being exceedingly patient and punishing mistakes. It’s not complicated, but that's a hard line to walk — no pun intended — and Haniger does it expertly.
Let’s start with his patient approach because it really is pretty remarkable.
First, it’s fairly difficult to get Haniger to swing in general. His O-Swing%, Z-Swing%, and total Swing% are all between 6-10 percentage points lower than the league average right now. He’s just not swinging unless he knows he has a pitch he can do some real damage against it.
Despite seeing a first-pitch strike in two-thirds of his plate appearances in 2017, he’s still running a walk rate approaching 15 percent. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to maintain that over a full season, but his 2016 walk-rate was comfortably over 12 percent between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors. It’s not crazy to think that figure is sustainable.
That patient approach also leads to a fair amount of strikeouts — Haniger is currently striking out almost a quarter of the time — but the Mariners will certainly live with that because when Haniger does swing, it’s generally at a pitch in the zone, and good things generally happen when he decides to take the bat off his shoulder.
For one, he’s very good at making contact within the zone: he’s connecting on over 90 percent of the pitches he’s swinging at in the zone so far this season. And when he makes contact on those pitches, they’re generally being hit in the air — Haniger’s average launch angle for the season is an almost ideal 13.3 degrees for his brief career.
The fact that he’s avoiding groundballs so often allows him to get away with the fact that he isn’t hitting the ball especially hard. His current average exit velocity is 87.1 on the season. It’s not Billy Hamilton, but that’s a comfortably below-average figure, especially for a corner outfielder. But because even those relatively weakly hit balls are being hit up, rather than down, Haniger’s results have been excellent nonetheless.
However, even those somewhat poor exit velocity numbers are cause for optimism. In Haniger’s major league debut last September, he had an average exit velocity of 93.1, well above league average. It’s the same average Josh Donaldson had last year, though Donaldson obviously it over a full season.
Still, even if Haniger’s true talent exit velocity is somewhere in the middle of his 2016 and 2017 numbers, that’s a number we should expect to improve going forward. With everything else Haniger has going for him right now, the fact that he hasn’t hit the ball as hard as he is capable of on a regular basis should be pretty scary for Mariners opponents.
Regardless, while Haniger is sure to come down to Earth somewhat in the coming weeks and months, there is no doubt that Segura is not the only major piece Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto got in the most prominent of his approximately 1000 trades this past offseason. Haniger is for real — who cares if most people didn’t know his name a month ago?
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.