Drayer: Mariners’ Mitch Haniger is back in form, and he’s leading not just by example
While it has been the youth that has grabbed most of the attention in Mariners camp this spring, the return of Mitch Haniger could easily qualify as one of the top stories coming out of Peoria.
In the past month Haniger has proven to be not only healthy but productive to the point that he has been inserted into the leadoff spot in manager Scott Servais’ lineup. Any question that he might be rusty or his would be timing off after a year and a half separated from games is all but put to rest – save for the requisite reminder that, well, this is spring training of course.
Mitch Haniger is back, and by all appearances this is not in any way a diminished Mitch Haniger. In fact, the Mitch Haniger seen in Arizona has had every bit the look – and then some – of the foundational player general manager Jerry Dipoto described him to be in 2018 when the Mariners’ rebuild began.
“He represents everything we want to build around and be about as a team,” Dipoto said at the time. “Not to put any more pressure on him, but if Mitch Haniger is no better than he was in 2018, we think that’s a terrific player who fits us perfectly.”
Unfortunately, because of injuries Haniger missed five months combined between 2019 and 2020 of what essentially were developmental games. His return comes however at what perhaps couldn’t be a more fortuitous time for the Mariners, who could use both what he brings on the field and off. With a clubhouse full of young players and more coming, he can still set the example, an example that did not go unnoticed before the injury.
“We had a nickname for him a couple years ago,” pitcher Marco Gonzales said this winter. “He’s our champion. Like you can’t explain it any other way. The dude is a champion. He does everything the right way. You can barely talk to him at the field. He’s from here to here to the weight room, the training room. He’s like a clock and at the end of the day he strives to win. He’s got that chip on his shoulder that just can’t be taken away.”
The clock is still ticking – and running – from here to there, the weight room, the training room, but outside the facility Haniger has been talking plenty. In the outfield, behind the cages, on walks from the “off-the-machine” hitting field to the dead arm field, Haniger has been engaged in conversations with those around him. Perhaps one of the best sights this spring was watching the animated conversation he kept going with infielder Ty France one morning moving from field to field as they progressed with their hitting work.
“To be able to talk to those kind of guys and be around those kinds of veterans, that’s how I learn,” said France. “It makes a huge difference with those guys. Talking hitting with Mitch, he’s a really smart hitter.”
First baseman Evan White is also appreciative of the experience Haniger brings.
“It’s awesome to have Hanny back and be able to talk to him about hitting and what has been successful for him,” White said. “To be on the field with him in BP? I’m trying to hit low bullets in BP now knowing that in the games balls are going to carry, that’s been a main focus, and being able to talk to him about that and seeing what his thoughts are and being able to pick and choose, it’s been exciting.”
For his part, surrounded by young players, Haniger is getting comfortable with his veteran-ness.
“I love it,” he said. “If I can help in any way, I always tell guys to come talk to me. I’m pretty routine-oriented and know what I need to do every day, but at the same time I told a young player don’t feel awkward asking me questions.”
Haniger remembers being the young player himself and said that at times it was intimidating to be around some of the vets. A difference maker for him is the same one who was the main player resource for the young players on the team last year.
“That’s something I can’t applaud (Kyle) Seager more of,” Haniger said. “For me, when I was a young player he was one of the older guys who was really good to me, helped me out and communicated really well with me. I think that presence in him in the locker room, he’s done a great job. I’ve learned so much from him that I am happy and excited to hopefully do that with some younger players.”
The term “vanilla” has been used to describe Haniger as an interview subject, with some nicknaming him “The Robot.” His words may not jump off the page, but as he continued, his delivery indicated a belief, even a passion for this subject, with his words coming quicker, louder and at times with emphasis.
“I think that’s what good teams do and I think you have to have multiple of those guys around!” he said. “You can’t just have one and you can’t just go out and get a bunch of young guys and expect for everyone to know what they are doing. You need veteran players.”
After a year and a half away from the team, Haniger is not tiptoeing gingerly into his season. The work he put in during the offseason has him ready. He believes in his routine. He sees himself surrounded by younger players and embraces his role. There is little question that Haniger leading by example would benefit the club, but this year he’s bringing more.
“He’s much more open and willing to share with players and give his opinion,” said Servais. “He’s at that point in his career where he has had a lot of success, he’s been an All-Star, he’s been in a couple of organizations, he’s experienced coming through a major injury. He’s just more willing to share and I think it’s great for all of our younger players, because when he speaks, people listen. There’s not a lot of fluff behind it, he’s direct and to the point. Our guys know that and I think he’s been awesome in our clubhouse and I look forward to it all year.”
Further reading: Haniger ready to put 600 days out of action behind him