Those who have followed Mitch Haniger’s baseball career over the past few years know the breakout season he’s now enjoying with the Seattle Mariners didn’t happen by accident.
Far from it, really.
The former Cal Poly baseball star developed his blue-collar work ethic long before he became the everyday starting right fielder in the Emerald City. Haniger has overcome injuries, minor-league demotions and two trades since being selected with the 38th-overall pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2012 Major League Baseball draft.
Haniger’s long and winding journey to the big leagues came to a head Easter Sunday, when he played a leading role in Seattle’s thrilling come-from-behind victory against the Texas Rangers.
With a crowd of nearly 20,000 on hand at Safeco Field, Haniger hit his team-leading fourth home run of the season, a three-run shot, to spark the Mariners’ comeback from a 6-1 deficit.
In the eighth inning, he made a highlight reel home run-saving catch in left center field to keep the score tied.
And in the ninth, Haniger showed the maturity of a 26-year-old rookie, drawing a timely, bases-loaded walk. Two batters later, Nelson Cruz hit a walk-off single to provide the perfect ending to perhaps the best day of Haniger’s young career.
Speaking to reporters after the game, Haniger — who has something of a reputation for short, no-nonsense answers — said his mindset is to “just try to do my job and be who I am, you know, just try to play good defense and hit the ball hard, swing at good pitches and put good at-bats together.”
That approach, coupled with a passion for weightlifting and countless extra hours spent in the batting cage, has made Haniger not only a fan favorite, but one of Seattle’s most productive offensive players through the first 18 games of the season.
The 6-foot-2, 204-pound Haniger is riding a 13-game hitting streak and leads the Mariners in batting average (.323), hits (20), runs (15), doubles (5), home runs (4), RBI (15) and walks (11).
What impressed Seattle manager Scott Servais the most about Haniger’s Sunday outing?
The bases-loaded walk.
“It says a lot for the maturity of the type of player that he is right now, and he has a chance to get even better,” Servais said. “So, exciting day for him and an unbelievable catch over the fence.
“It was pretty awesome.”
‘Very meaningful and clutch’
It’s been five years since Haniger opted to forgo his senior year in San Luis Obispo, leaving behind one of the most decorated offensive résumés in program history.
The Mustangs went 86-78 overall during his three-year stretch from 2010 to 2012, and Haniger consistently excelled at the plate. He finished his career No. 4 all-time in home runs (26), tied for No. 4 in doubles (47), and tied for No. 5 in RBI (137).
Cal Poly’s Larry Lee, now in his 15th year as head coach, has kept a watchful eye on Haniger’s rise through the minor leagues. Lee remembers well Haniger’s first year on campus, when the young player hit .325 and was named Big West Freshman Field Player of the Year.
Just as clear in Lee’s mind is the progress Haniger made each season and his knack for timely hitting, a trait that’s carried over well into his professional career.
“Some players hit when there’s nothing on the line, and Mitch, his home runs and extra base hits and RBI, they were very meaningful and clutch,” Lee said Wednesday afternoon. “He did that time and time again. You could see the maturity as a hitter.”
In Haniger’s final year at Cal Poly, he led the Big West with 13 home runs and 64 RBI, garnered All-America honors and was named the Big West Field Player of the Year.
A few months later, he was drafted 38th overall by Milwaukee — the highest drafted Cal Poly player in the program’s Division I era at the time — and received a $1.2 million signing bonus. He’s one of 23 former Mustangs currently playing in the professional ranks.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Haniger told The Tribune in June 2012.
Landing in Seattle
What followed was a long and, at times, frustrating climb through the minor leagues.
Haniger suffered a serious knee injury his first summer in the Brewers’ organization, and two years later he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
He refined the mechanics of his swing over the next two seasons, often bouncing between the Double-A and Single-A affiliates in pursuit of more playing time.
It would pay off in a major way in 2016.
Haniger played in 129 games in Arizona’s minor-league system last year, hitting .321 with 34 doubles, five triples, 25 home runs, 94 RBI and 12 stolen bases. He was named the Diamondbacks’ minor league player of the year and went on to make his big league debut Aug. 16, 2016.
Never one to shy away from the spotlight, Haniger went 2 for 4 with a double, triple and three RBI in his first major league game. It was the first of 34 games he would play with Arizona to end the 2016 season.
In November, Haniger was traded to the Seattle Mariners as part of a five-player deal.
“With the stuff that happened with the D-Backs, going up and going down in my first full year, that was a little rough. I think it gave me more of a chip on my shoulder,” Haniger told the Seattle Times. “I’ve always had one from the start, but I think that’s helped me a lot and learning from the failure.”
Fast forward to today, and Haniger has taken the Mariners’ fan base by storm.
A quick search for his name on Twitter will show hundreds of results from Seattle supporters pleading for Haniger to win American League Rookie of the Year, if not the MVP.
Though that praise may be in jest — it’s only April, after all — the former Mustang has clearly secured his place in Seattle’s lineup.
“He’s getting an opportunity to play here,” said Servais, now in his second year managing the Mariners. “He’s worked for it his whole life, and we’re going to give it to him and let him run. He’s taking it very seriously, and I like what I see.
“He’s been very impressive.”
Mitch Haniger At a Glance
Hometown: Santa Clara
College: Cal Poly, 2010-12
Drafted: 38th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers
MLB debut: Aug. 16, 2016, with Arizona Diamondbacks
This season: Haniger leads the Seattle Mariners in batting average (.323), hits (20), runs (15), doubles (5), home runs (4), RBI (15) and walks (11).