Hitters deploy their craft in different ways. Not all have the same mechanics, nor do they employ the same approaches. Another thing that differs is the way they articulate their ideas. Proof in that pudding can be found in six similar-themed interviews that have run here at FanGraphs over the past two months. Daniel Murphy, Nolan Arenado, Drew Ferguson, Michael Lorenzen, Jesse Winker, and Matt Chapman have all expounded on the art (or is it a science?) of hitting, and each of their perspectives has been unique.
Mitch Haniger’s is unique, as well. The Mariners outfielder once told me that his hitting approach is complex, which made circling back to gain further insight on what makes him tick a veritable no-brainer. I caught up with the 28-year-old Cal Poly product when Seattle visited Fenway Park this past weekend.
David Laurila: When we spoke in 2013 — you were playing in the Arizona Fall League at the time — you called your hitting approach “pretty complex.” How would you describe it now?
Mitch Haniger: “It’s simple to me. It’s not simple to explain. There are so many factors that go into your approach, based on who you’re facing and what the situation is. How many outs are there? Where in the game are you? Are you facing a starter or a reliever? Not every at-bat is the same. That said, my main focus is essentially to get a good pitch, and hit the ball as hard as possible while taking a nice easy swing.”
Laurila: Getting a good pitch to hit is Hitting 101. How do you balance the simplicity of that approach with the multiple factors you referred to?
Haniger: “I look at pitchers’ tendencies and see how they try to pitch guys. For instance, most pitchers drastically change with runners in scoring position. I’ll look at previous at-bats against a guy and see what he’s typically doing. But really, the overwhelming majority of the time I’m looking for a fastball and trying to stay in the center of the field.”
Laurila: Can you elaborate on “most pitchers drastically change with runners in scoring position”?
Haniger: “Most guys go with their off-speed. But it really just depends. You have to do your homework on that specific guy. If you’re facing someone with a really good fastball, that’s probably his out-pitch, so he’s probably going to stick with his fastball. A guy who is a little more crafty — maybe a crafty lefty — is probably going to go with more changeups. He might nibble around the zone. There’s also who is hitting behind you, and if there’s a base open. All of those things come into play.”
Laurila: In a few of my earlier “Talks Hitting” conversations — Daniel Murphy and Nolan Arenado, for instance — the idea of a hitter’s A-swing came up. More specifically, is it possible to have more than one A-swing, or is it basically A, B, and maybe C?
Haniger: “I’ve heard people talk about that. I think some hitters can have multiple swings. When I’m going good, I think I take the same swing every time. Maybe guys are referring to ‘stay short and go the other way’ type of swings? Maybe that’s their B-swing? I don’t know what they told you, but I can’t tell Daniel Murphy or Nolan Arenado that they were wrong. Or right. It’s whatever they feel. Some guys might have three or four swings. For me, when I’m taking my good swing, it’s the same swing.”
Laurila: When you’re facing a pitcher with a quality breaking ball, and it’s a two-strike count, are you truly taking your A-swing?
Haniger: “I feel like I am, yeah. I mean, am I trying to stay short and put the ball in play, hit a line drive? I try to do those things no matter what the count is. I don’t think my swing changes too much. Hopefully it doesn’t change too much.”
Laurila: What is your timing mechanism?
Haniger: “The leg kick and the barrel tip. I started doing that in the middle of 2015. Before that I was stagnant. I would get my foot down early, my hands got back, and I was stuck. I had to crash forward, and I was very steep.
“A lot of people talk about taking the slack out of your body. Some guys are very stiff to begin with. Some guys are very loose and mobile. I’m hyper mobile; I’m very loose. I have bigger moves than most guys; I have the big leg kick; I have a big barrel tip. You have to get into a position where the slack, the tightness, is stretched out like a rubber band. You don’t want to just pull it back and let it go. You want to pull it back deep and let it go, to get that sling effect, to get that drive.
“For me, it takes a little more than it does for most guys. My load is a lot. I have bigger moves, because I need to get to that end range so my hips can come through and my hands can stay back. For some guys it’s real short and quick. They’re not as loose as me. So yeah… it’s good and it’s bad. There’s simplicity, but while my swing is a little more complex than most guys’ swings, I’m able to do a few more things with my body, and get to certain pitches, based on being more mobile.”
Laurila: Where do you start your hands?
Haniger: “I want my hands to start back. I have a lot more movement up and down with my hands, as opposed to, say, a Justin Turner. He’s got a big leg kick, but his hands aren’t moving too much, they’re just working underneath the ball. The leg kick, for me… I need some hand movement. There aren’t a lot of guys that leg kick without hand movement.
“A guy with a leg kick and some hand movement that I’ve kind of tried to emulate a little bit is David Ortiz. His leg came up as his hands dropped. As he went forward, his hands worked back up, so he could get underneath the ball.”
Laurila: Does your extra movement make you more prone to get out of sync?
Haniger: “Yes and no. I think it’s a blessing, because I can get to a lot of different pitches. At the same time, yeah. If my timing is off, it can be difficult. But I wouldn’t say it’s a negative thing.”
Laurila: I haven’t looked at your spray charts. Do you go the other way very often?
Haniger: “Maybe not as much as I’d like to. At the same time, I’ve kind of always done my damage… I mean, I’ll hit some home runs to right field. Not a ton. It’s mostly center, left-center, and left. But I have to be able to go the other way. It means my swing is right. If you can hit the ball to the opposite field, that means your swing is in the zone early and you’re staying long through it.”
Laurila: Can you clarify “staying long through it”?
Haniger: “If you’re steep, or rolling your wrists over too early, or getting around the ball, you’re not going to be able to go to right field. You have to stay inside the ball, and try to drive the ball through — you know, keep hitting through the ball. Keep that swing path toward right-center, so that you can drive the ball to right field. You want good extension on your swing.”
Laurila: Are you trying to catch the ball out front?
Haniger: “Do, yes. Think, no. I’ve always been good about hitting it out front — my contact point has always been out front — so it’s not something I want to focus on. I’ve already done it well, so I just try to see the ball as long as possible, and hit it up the middle. Generally, I haven’t been a guy who is going to catch it really deep.”
Laurila: You said, “Do, yes. Think, no.” What exactly did you mean by that?
Haniger: “I think a big key as a hitter is to understand the difference between feel and what’s real. Nowadays, everyone is talking hitting mechanics.There are all these ways to measure things. There is a ton of video. You also have former players talking about certain things they thought, that got them right. Maybe it was ‘swing down.’ Maybe it was ‘take my top hand across my face.’ Those are feels. They’re not what’s really happening when you break down video.
“So, being able to understand how feel can get your swing to where you want it to be… for me, sometimes it is thinking ‘swing down’ or ‘swing up.’ I want the video to match what I want to see my swing look like, but the feel can be different. Does that make sense? If you’re battling… say my back shoulder is tilting back when I’m swinging. That day I might think about swinging down, to keep my back shoulder up longer. But in reality, I’m not going to be swinging down. I’m going to be level. There’s a difference between feel and what’s real.”
Laurila: That sounds analogous to a pitcher saying that he needs to think cutter in order to throw his good slider.
Haniger: “Exactly. It’s the thought that gets the pitch right for him. At the end of the day, who cares what the thought process is, as long as it has the right effect. If a pitcher is thinking cutter every time, and he’s got a nasty slider… great. Not great for me, but great for him.”
Laurila: I’ll close with a question I’ve often started with: Is hitting more of an art, or more of a science?
Haniger: “There is obviously science. There are the biomechanics and physics of it. But you also need to have the art part figured out. Personally, I’d probably say it’s more of an art, because there are certain things an individual hitter does. I do things differently than a lot of other hitters. But really, if you think about it broadly, it’s more scientific. I guess that means it’s both.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.