Larry Lee had a knee-slapping good time back when he was scouting Mitch Haniger.
The Cal Poly baseball head coach had to chuckle when the Mustangs recruit from San Jose’s Archbishop Mitty High brandished a throwing arm that put competing prospects to shame.
“The thing that’s always set him apart is his arm,” Lee said. “He has a legit Major League arm and has since I first saw him. At times, it was laughable because you’d sit at a big showcase camp with 30 or 40 outfielders throwing from the outfield, and it wasn’t even close.
“It’s probably the best outfield arm that I’ve had since I’ve been coaching. That’s his plus, but he has a chance of being good at everything in the game with offense and defense.”
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The rest of San Luis Obispo got its first look at Haniger’s cannon the summer before his freshman year at Cal Poly while he roamed centerfield for the Rattlers, and he unleashed numerous impressive throws for the local summer collegiate baseball team.
Now a junior, the rest of Haniger’s game has blossomed as well, putting him in the conversation for Big West Conference Player of the Year and begging comparisons to other recent Mustangs greats.
The best hitting prospect in Lee’s 10 years at Cal Poly had to be Grant Desme, a 2007 second-round pick by the Oakland Athletics who was on a fast track to the majors before he fled the outfield prematurely to pursue Catholic priesthood.
Going into the draft as a junior, Desme hit .405 with 15 home runs in an MVP season, ranking fifth all-time in both categories on Cal Poly’s single-season list.
Haniger was in high school at the time, being recruited by the likes of Cal State Fullerton, Cal, Oregon, UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis. As he closed in on committing to the Mustangs, he boned up on their pro prospects, and Desme was as good as any to try and emulate.
“Hopefully I keep improving like Grant Desme,” Haniger said. “He’d be in the big leagues right now. He’s a really good player, and hopefully I can succeed like he did before he retired.”
Haniger is far and away Cal Poly’s best hitter this season, leading the Big West in home runs (11), RBI (51) and slugging percentage (.624).
His .343 batting average is seventh in the conference. He’s second in doubles (15), third in runs scored (37) and fourth in hits (61).
The problem with comparing Haniger’s stats to former Mustangs such as White Sox third baseman Brent Morel and outfielder Logan Schafer, who got his first Major League call-up with the Milwaukee Brewers late last season, is that they used different equipment.Morel, for instance, hit .386 with eight home runs and led the Big West in RBI (60) and total bases (140) before being taken in the third round of the 2008 draft.
But college baseball instituted the use of BBCOR bats in 2011, intending to make the game safer by employing metal bats that respond more like wooden counterparts, decreasing the speed of batted balls. The change has also led to a decrease in power numbers nationwide.
“Some of the players in the past had the luxury of swinging the real higher-end bats that the ball really jumped off,” Lee said. “There’s the possibility if he’s using that bat with the season he’s having this year, he’s going to have better numbers.
“I’m sure he would have a few more home runs, and he’d hit for a higher average because the outfielders have to play deep, and the balls you don’t get all of have a tendency to fall in.”
The best way to judge Haniger might have to be against his current peers, and in the Big West, he’s blowing them away.
The next closest home run leader, Cal State Northridge’s Miles Williams has only six this season. Haniger has almost .110 slugging percentage points on UC Santa Barbara’s Brett Vertigan, and Cal Poly’s Jimmy Allen is second in the conference with 33 RBI, 18 fewer than Haniger.
In the end, Haniger may lose out to Michael Lorenzen, who is third in RBI with 31, first in doubles with 17 and has a 1.56 ERA and 13 saves on the mound for first-place Cal State Fullerton, but there is little doubt Haniger will have his name called early in the draft, perhaps even earlier than Desme and Morel.
Haniger has 10 more games to build on his season, starting tonight in the first of a three-game nonconference series against visiting Cal State Bakersfield.
“If I just play my best baseball, I’ll get rewarded at the end of the year,” Haniger said. “There’s a lot of other good players. I can only control how I play. So, if I just finish strong, that would be nice to see my name put on the list with all those other guys.”