Consistency has been key to the three-year career of Cal Poly baseball’s captain and center fielder Mitch Haniger.
“He’s really come into his own this year,” head coach Larry Lee said. “His hitting mechanics have continued to get better — he can hit almost any pitch. He had a game this year where he had five hits all coming off sliders. That shows you how far he’s come.”
Each plate appearance, he steps one foot in with a hand on his helmet. He taps his bat on the far side of the plate and draws it up. Three half-practice swings, and he is ready with a slightly open stance.
This consistency has led to accolades for Haniger. As a freshman, Haniger was voted to the Louisville Slugger Freshmen All-American Team along with the Big West Freshman of the Year award.
“He’s been a leader for us,” Lee said. “The way he carries himself, his hard work and his approach to the game and practice, makes all of his teammates listen when he talks.”
Hitting .325 as a freshman and .275 as a sophomore, Haniger cemented his role as starting center fielder for his junior season. He currently holds a commanding lead in almost all of the Big West conference power categories: slugging percentage, RBIs and home runs, all while patrolling center field with a .992 fielding percentage and nine assists. These statistics have propelled Haniger into contention for Big West Player of the Year and an All-American spot.
“If he can finish strong this last month, he leads all the power categories,” Lee said. “He has a lot of assists from the outfield. He throws out a lot of people, and that doesn’t usually happen. He has put himself in a position where if we continue to succeed as a team, he will be right up there.”
In Cal Poly’s 12-7 win against UC Davis on Saturday, Haniger went 3 for 5, hitting his Big West-leading 10th home run and adding four RBIs to his season total. Freshman right fielder Nick Torres also belted a homer in the win versus the Aggies, the blast was just one example of how he tries to mimic Haniger’s success.
“I try to model myself after Mitch and how he carries himself on the field,” Torres said. “That composure, never to get high or low. His patience and presence at the plate is something I try to keep in my at bats.”
Growing up, Haniger always knew professional baseball was his ultimate goal. His older brother Jason, a four-year catcher at Georgia Tech and eventually a Pittsburg draftee, showed him that dream could be a reality.
“Seeing him get drafted, and his buddies get drafted,” Haniger said. “It was eye-opening to see if you put in the hard work, this is where you could stand in a few years. He’s kind of been my role model, I’ve looked up to him for awhile.”
And hard work is what Haniger is all about.
“I try to lead by example,” Haniger said. “Pretend that someone is always watching, get to the field early and leave late. I try to teach the younger guys to play the game right.”
Haniger spent the past two summers playing against some of the nation’s top competition in the Northwoods League and the West Coast League (WCL) in Corvallis, Ore. Haniger was a first-team WCL center fielder. He was voted the 19th best prospect out of the Northwoods League last year, a rank that primes him as a high draft pick.
“Summer ball helps a ton,” Haniger said. “You see what it’s like to play in a pro season, not having many off days. You learn about getting out of a slump quicker. It’s a game of failure, and you need to be able to forget mistakes quick. You face competition that you wouldn’t see.”
When the 2012 season ends, Haniger will have a choice to face. Return to Cal Poly for his senior year to end a storybook career or sign with a professional baseball team. Haniger has yet to make that decision. Until then, he wants to continue playing good baseball in hopes of leading the Mustangs to a Big West title.
“I’m just trying to take it one pitch at a time,” Haniger said. “Not really worry about that until the end of the season. It’s tough to not think about, but that’s the best way to look at it.”