Mitch Haniger isn’t sure if the glass is half empty or half full, but one of his legs is definitely shorter than the other.
The Cal Poly junior outfielder credits the limb length discrepancy — the actual clinical name for what turns out to be a pretty common condition — as the root of chronic back pain.
Having tinkered with his footwear and workout habits, Haniger hopes the trial and error is over and that the former Big West Conference Freshman of the Year can have his first fully healthy college season for a team in need of offense while it breaks in a bunch of new arms.
“My right leg is 16 millimeters shorter than my left, so in high school, I had slight scoliosis,” said Haniger, who’s missed portions of both his freshman and sophomore Cal Poly seasons with separate back ailments that he traces back to a discrepancy that was diagnosed while he played at Archbishop Mitty High in San Jose.
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This year, he said, feels different.
Haniger has a lift in his shoe to even his stride and has worked on strengthening his legs and back with squat exercises that can sometimes be ruled out for players with lower-back issues.
At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, the Santa Clara native is in the best shape of his career. Representing the Mustangs’ top pro prospect going into today’s 6 p.m. season-opener against visiting Oklahoma State, he’ll move from right field to center and bat third.
Having hit .299 with 73 RBI in two injury-hampered seasons, Haniger is 100 percent healthy now, and so far, the season is full of optimism.
“He needs to be an anchor in our offense because he’ll be our three-hole hitter,” said head coach Larry Lee, a San Luis Obispo native entering his 10th season at the helm. “Offensively, if your main guys can do what they’re supposed to do, the rest of the guys can follow suit, and it takes the pressure off the rest of the guys. Everybody hits in a part of the lineup they should be hitting, and they feel comfortable.”
Hitting will be especially valued after the departures of pitchers Mason Radeke, Jeff Johnson and Frankie Reed — who were all drafted last June — and Steven Fischback, who capped an injury-stalled career with a stellar senior season on the mound last year.
Lee and the players agree they have confidence in Joey Wagman (4-3, 3.62 ERA in 2011), tonight’s starter, and the pitchers that will follow him.
They’ll have even more confidence if returning position starters Haniger, Mike Miller, Evan Busby, Chris Hoo, Jimmy Allen, Denver Chavez and David Armendariz can put up runs.
The Mustangs lost outfielder Bobby Crocker, a fourth-round pick of the Oakland A’s that brought a unique mix of power and speed. He’ll also be hard to replace.
“We can be better than last year,” said Miller, a former Cuesta College shortstop who hit .306 with 23 RBI in a breakout season last year. “It hurts to lose guys, but we have a new wave of guys, and it’s not necessarily going to be the same style of baseball. It’s going to be hard to find guys who play like some of those guys did in years past, but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t bring in their own style and do just as well or bring just as much to the table.”
Lee praised Armendariz, who’ll likely DH, for his improvement at the plate and singled out sophomore Matt Russell as the biggest breakout star of the offseason.
After batting just 1 for 13 in reserve action in 17 games last season, Russell went on to hit .404 with three home runs, five triples, 16 doubles and 22 RBI for the West Coast Rangers in his hometown of Ventura over the summer, parlaying that success into the starting job in left field for the Mustangs.
Last year’s left-fielder, sophomore Jimmy Allen will move to third, and Busby, who played third, slides over to second base while Chavez continues to recover from a hamstring injury.
Nick Torres and Ryan Drobny, two true freshmen, will start in right field and at first base, respectively, while Hoo will be behind the plate. If this is the year Cal Poly makes its second Division I NCAA Regional and first since 2009, the new players will have to acclimate quickly. Slow starts in each of the past two seasons — an 0-6 start in 2011 and a 7-17 skid to open 2010 — were certainly regrettable.
“I’ve been thinking about trying to get off to a good start,” Haniger said. “Halfway through the year, we’re always thinking in the past two seasons if we had just started a little better, we’d have a lot better run at playoffs. Maybe just go out there with a little more intensity.”