It was June 2015 and as the dog days of midseason baseball started to heat up, Mitch Haniger’s baseball career was cooling down.
A former first-round draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers, Haniger was once touted by the organization as a top prospect with home-run-mashing power and a rifle for an arm in the outfield. Just three short years later, he had been traded to the Diamondbacks and was stuck as a backup outfielder in their Double-A affiliate in Mobile, Alabama.
Turning his career around
The front office that traded for Haniger a year earlier was fired in the offseason. At this point, his career began to blend in with the hundreds of other career minor-leaguers that never get their chance in the major league.
Haniger was dangerously close to baseball purgatory and he knew he needed to make a change.
“In my mind, being the fourth or fifth outfielder in Double-A not playing very much, playing one day a week, nobody made it to the big leagues doing that,” Haniger said. “By going down, I felt I had my chance to open eyes and really prove myself to people.”
Haniger reworked his approach at the plate with hitting coach Bobby Tewksbary to regain the power that had escaped him in recent months and revived his career. Although his 2015 season with the High-A Visalia Rawhide was cut short in August by a hand injury, Haniger proved in his three months with the team that he deserved more playing time at a higher level.
Haniger started 2016 back in Double-A and, over the course of the season, was called up to Triple-A and eventually to the majors. Over the course of his 2016 season at the three different levels Haniger crushed 30 home runs and 111 RBIs.
“With the D-Backs I had to change a lot of minds because I don’t think anybody thought that I was gonna be that guy,” Haniger said. “There’s always teams watching, whether it’s your club or someone else’s, so if you just go out there and be yourself and play hard there’s always a spot for you.”
His prolific production at the plate combined with his strong arm and athleticism drew the attention of Jerry Dipoto, the newly hired General Manager of the Seattle Mariners. In the 2016 offseason, one day before Thanksgiving, Haniger got a call from the Mariners informing him that he had been traded for the second time in his five-year career.
Just before the phone rang, Haniger had made plans to hang out with his childhood best friend, Elliot Stewart. Haniger and Stewart were friends from elementary school and played baseball together at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California and at Cal Poly as well.
Just five minutes after Haniger got the phone call that would change the course of his career, Stewart showed up at the door.
“He wasn’t bummed out, but he was in shock,” Stewart said. “The more that night went on and the more we talked about it, he seemed really fired up and then got really positive about things.”
That positivity has turned into major production on the field for Haniger. Though he is currently out for three to four weeks with an oblique strain, he is an early candidate for the American League Rookie of the Year award. This season, Haniger is ranked in the top five in the American League in runs scored (20) and batting average (.342), while his on-base percentage (.447) is currently first in the American League.
Haniger now sits on the brink of baseball stardom, but while growing up in Santa Clara, California, it was his older brother, Jason, who was the prized prospect out of Archbishop Mitty High School.
Under the tutelage of the Monarchs’ former head coach, Bill Hutton, Jason won two section titles en route to earning a spot on the all-state team and a scholarship to Georgia Tech. According to Hutton, Jason’s success helped foster the perfect conditions for the younger Mitch to achieve his maximum potential.
“Even when Mitch was in little league and kind of lost in the shadow of his brother, he was already showing freakish power,” Hutton said. “So even though Jason was the man, a strong catcher on a good team and heavily recruited, the younger guy was hitting home runs like nobody’s business in little league.”
Mitch knew by the time he was in high school that playing professional baseball one day was within his reach, but he remained focused on the next goal in front of him the entire way.
“For me it was just kinda one step at a time,” Haniger said. “In high school it was all about trying to get a scholarship to play in college.”
Coming to Cal Poly
Despite Haniger’s production at one of the top high school programs in the country, Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee was not entirely convinced at first that he would be a successful college player. Haniger knew he wanted to go to Cal Poly, so he and coach Hutton invited Lee back four or five times to showcase his abilities. Eventually, Lee offered him a scholarship.
Immediately after signing with Cal Poly, Haniger began to campaign for the Mustangs to bring in his friend Stewart, who was playing catcher for West Valley College at the time. Interestingly enough, the Mustangs had thought about bringing in Stewart earlier, but thought he had already signed a scholarship offer from another college.
“Once they found out that he was still searching for a school to commit with, they came out to West Valley and saw him,” Haniger said. “They liked him enough that they brought him down to Cal Poly.”
The two friends set out for college, even living together in the residence halls to ease the transition to southern California from the San Francisco Bay Area. Their friendship served as a rock for Haniger throughout college which made focusing on baseball that much easier.
“We’ve been close ever since and he’s still one of my best friends to this day,” Haniger said. “He’s been awesome and [I] try to hang out as much as I can when I’m home in the offseason.”
Today, Stewart serves as a volunteer assistant coach for the Mustangs, a position he likely never would have reached without Haniger’s recruitment.”
Haniger also had another emotional rock to help keep him focused on his goals. He and his wife, Amanda Haniger, have been together since Mitch was a freshman in high school. According to Stewart, Mitch’s relationship with Amanda continues to keep him on track in his baseball career.
“They’ve been together forever and she’s been awesome through the whole thing back when Mitch was a skinny, 110-pound nerdy freshman with all the potential in the world and now he’s crushing homers in the big leagues,” Stewart said. “That’s really helped him. All these other guys are out there scrounging for a girlfriend and he’s got that steady rock that keeps him in line and keeps distraction away.”
Along his journey to the major leagues, Mitch never lost sight of his goal. Even during tumultuous times in Mobile, Alabama, he always had confidence in where he would end up.
“Its kind of a long journey, definitely a lot of ups and downs,” Haniger said. “It’s tough being away from home and in some smaller, tougher cities at times, but you got to just keep believing in yourself and trying to just go out there and be who I know I am and play baseball.”