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Player Review: Mitch Haniger

Wait — he was on the team?

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Colorado Rockies v San Francisco Giants
“Mitch, how many games will you play next year?”
Photo by Andy Kuno/San Francisco Giants/Getty Images

2023 stats: 61 G, 229 PA, .209/.266/.365 (.631 OPS), 6 HR, 28 RBI, 73 OPS+, -0.2 fWAR

Notable: The San Francisco Giants were 26-16 with him in the lineup before he missed the second half of June, all of July, and most of August, and they were 7-12 when he played the rest of the way despite the team having an otherwise dreadful September overall (9-19).

Earlier today, embattled Yankees GM Brian Cashman rankled some with his comments regarding slugger Giancarlo Stanton:

“We try to limit the time he’s down,” Cashman said. “But I’m not gonna tell you he’s gonna play every game next year because he’s not. He’s going to wind up getting hurt again more likely than not because it seems to be part of his game. But I know that when he’s right and healthy – other than this past year – the guy’s a great hitter and has been for a long time.”

For a while now, the industry has factored in “health” as a part of a player’s skillset and so while Cashman’s words came off as indelicate — perhaps betraying his recovery from a poopstorm — they were indicative of present-day player valuations.

Which brings us to Mitch Haniger, the guy the Giants had penciled in as their #2 big fish heading into last offseason. Signing him maybe wasn’t the worst idea, but the logic of the 3-year deal (with an opt out after year 2!) feels a little shaky. He debuted at 25 in 2016 but has played in just 71 more career games than Mike Yastrzemski (625 to 554). Injuries are just a part of his game. Always have been, even when they’ve been flukish, as they were when he suffered a ruptured testicle in 2019 (which wiped out the rest of that season and all of 2020) and a broken forearm this season.

Of course, he also started this year on the IL, suffering an oblique strain in Spring Training. So, the Giants signed an injury guy hoping they’d be able to steal some value and outrun the injury boulder. Instead, Alfred Molina betrayed them they experienced an outcome near the top of the list of worst possible: he didn’t play much and wasn’t good when he did.

Role on 2023 team

The team clearly felt they were bringing back a Bay Area kid to lead his team back to third Wild Card contention as deep into the season as possible, hoping that after years of simply not playing and the team’s ability to maximize health that he could maybe give them a good everyday player on a 3+-win pace before succumbing to some random injury. As Brady wrote at the time:

Haniger has hit right-handed pitchers well, sporting a career .795 OPS against righties, and an .853 OPS when he has the handedness advantage. Between those numbers and the size of the contract, it’s safe to assume the Giants plan to use him as an everyday player.

He had all the makings of a middle of the order threat, but an oblique injury in Spring Training guaranteed he would at the very least get off to a poor start whenever he was able to work himself back into the lineup. Indeed, he got off to such a terrible start (.193/.226/.295 through his first 24 games) that it was going to take a blindingly white hot streak — like a Wilmer Floresean run — to salvage his season.

And he nearly did it!

Starting with his 25th game, he hit .283/.358/.483 (.842 OPS) over his next 16 games (67 PA). This run can be chalked up to a combination of finally feeling like he was a part of the team and being fed Sour Patch Kids by Casey Schmitt despite following a strict diet. The switch flip is sort of undeniable: Haniger + Sour Patch Kids candy = productive player.

Haniger, who is on a strict diet, has a love/hate relationship with the young infielder supplying the candy.

“I get on him for always bringing food into the dugout,” Haniger joked with reporters postgame. “But he gave me Sour Patch yesterday and today, so we’ll keep it going.”

But then Jack Flaherty hit him with a pitch and he had to undergo surgery to repair his forearm, knocking him out until August 29th. A lot happened during his absence.

  • every position player prospect turned back into a pumpkin (Bailey’s defense up until September excepted)
  • the clubhouse tuned out Gabe Kapler
  • Gabe Kapler started panicking and decided to try to gain leverage pitch to pitch, a sort of panic-SABRing of a tricky roster, seemingly sacrificing any and all human relationships

And so, suddenly, the Giants’ projected everyday outfielder and potential All-Star was relegated to a platoon role.

The weirdest part of the numbers — to me, anyway — is that the Giants’ lineup was better with him in it even though he was mostly very bad. In August I noted that Heliot Ramos’ hitting profile in the minors had started to resemble Haniger’s projections and so calling up the kid could have a halo effect on the lineup as Haniger’s presence seemed to; though, I mean, look, I was grasping at straws. Still, it seemed very strange to get him back right before September only to lump him in with the rest of a bad group.

Kapler seemed to have not told Haniger ahead of time that he was now a no-good platoon loser — and, who knows? Maybe that was mostly Kapler’s decision or maybe the organization’s consensus on Haniger’s profile and future value had changed.

It was an unmitigated disaster of a season for Mitch Haniger, which must’ve really sucked to live through.

Role on 2024 team

At one point during the offseason, I noted that Mitch Haniger had missed 35% of all possible games since his first full season in 2017. After this past season, that’s now 43% of all possible games (441 out of 1,032). He turns 33 in 40 days. Players don’t get better as they age nor by missing huge chunks of most seasons.

If he is just a platoon guy now, then it makes sense to pair him with the other injury-prone platoon guy (Michael Conforto) and have a $38 million DH — Haniger’s real money salary in 2024 is $20 million but just $14.5 in AAV based on his deal’s structure. It didn’t work out too much for the team when they blew the qualifying offer on Joc Pederson, but it just might work this time...

Still, it feels like another Tommy La Stella situation. Everyone did their best, but fate intervened. Baseball isn’t fair. It’s often cruel. I had a thought that maybe Matt Williams could be of help here since he was a slugger who struggled with injuries in his 30s, but he was a Mitchell Report guy, and so I don’t think his experience mirrors Haniger’s. “Sour Patch Kids? You Millenials are so weird. In my day, we just called it The Juice,” he might say.

Of course, there’s a chance it could be different. Maybe Bob Melvin or Pat Burrell knows just what to do. Players get written off only to have one last gasp of greatness all the time.