Mitch Haniger still can’t describe it.
That moment he felt as his name flashed across the bottom of the screen during this year’s Major League Baseball (MLB) First-Year Player Draft was too much to digest. In the middle of cheers from a group of friends and family, it took the breath out of him, stunned him and reminded him of what he had spent the past three years in San Luis Obispo working toward: The Major Leagues.
“Everybody was screaming and yelling,” Haniger said. “It was just a great time.”
As a compensatory selection of the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round (38th overall) of the MLB Draft on June 4, Haniger became the highest player drafted out of Cal Poly in the school’s Division I tenure, the program’s second highest overall. He was one of three players from Cal Poly drafted (Mike Miller, 301st overall, and Nick Grim, 522 overall), with another — Kyle Anderson — signing a free-agent contract.
The selection seemed on par for Haniger after the outfielder posted eye-opening numbers on the diamond in 2012. Haniger led the conference with 13 home runs and a .626 slugging percentage, also finishing second on the team with a .346 batting average.
Those numbers paved the way for him to become the third-ever Cal Poly player to be named Big West Conference Player of the Year. He also received second-team All-America honors from Baseball America — the only player from the conference to be named to any of Baseball America’s three teams.
“Mitch had an unbelievable season,” Anderson said. “He put up some numbers that haven’t really been seen at Cal Poly in a while. He set himself apart from a lot of other outfield prospects in college and we knew he was going to be high draft pick. Once we saw him on TV that first day it was crazy to see, but we weren’t surprised.”
Haniger received a reported $1.2 million signing bonus and was assigned to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Class A affiliate of the Brewers, to start his minor league career. But regardless of the venue, he is still leaning on the crutch that made him so successful at Cal Poly: his motivation for more.
“It’s just about staying hungry, not being satisfied with how things are going,” Haniger said. ” You just have to go at it every day and do your best to put your team in a place where they can win.”
He did that for Cal Poly, leading the team to one of the best finishes in recent memory. The Mustangs went 36-20 (16-8 Big West) with Haniger, placing just behind Cal State Fullerton in the conference standings.
During that year, Haniger set himself apart from the rest of the competition out west in the eyes of head coach Larry Lee. Lee said Haniger put forth one of the best statistical seasons he has seen in his 10 years with the program, one comparable to what Grant Desme did in 2007. Desme received conference player of the year honors that season after winning the triple crown, leading the Big West in batting average (.405), home runs (15) and RBIs (53).
“If you compare the best the west has to offer, he is on top,” Lee said. “And if you compare him to the Big West Conference, he really put some distance between himself and the next nearest hitter when he came to any power offensive category.”
Haniger was just as stout defensively. Lee’s coached quite a few outfielders that ended their Cal Poly careers as high draft picks in the MLB, but Haniger’s defensive tools made him stand head and shoulders above the rest.
“He’s always had a tremendous outfield arm, probably the best arm that I’ve coached,” Lee said. “It was just a matter of him developing his approach at the plate, refining his hitting mechanics.”
And while Haniger was at Cal Poly, he did just that. In that process, he was thrown under the microscope by an onslaught of scouts. This season marked the end of a three-year audit, with scouts analyzing every part of his personality and skill set. It wasn’t the first time, as Haniger was selected in the 31st round by the New York Mets as a senior out of Archbishop Mitty High School, but this time it was a bit different.
Numerous teams were in the conversation to select Haniger. The Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox were two of the teams closely following the outfielder, but many were unsure as to where he would exactly be selected.
“Some teams saw me in the second round, other teams saw me in the supplemental,” Haniger said. “Luckily the Brewers saw me in the supplemental round, so it worked out great.”
To say Haniger worked for that selection would be an understatement. Haniger’s work ethic made him the player he is today. Even after the season, he took just one day off, and hit, ran and lifted every day until he flew out to his minor league assignment.
That work ethic didn’t go unnoticed at Cal Poly.
“The longer I was around him, the more I appreciated what he brought to the team,” Lee said. “He is a hard worker, works every day on trying to get better at his game. Good student and good person.”
Haniger now has an opportunity to exercise that work ethic at the next level. The glory and bright lights of the Major Leagues are three call ups away, but right now Haniger is set on his season in Wisconsin.
As of this moment, the bright lights can wait.
“I haven’t really thought about my future. My only goal is to have a good summer, hopefully make it through the minors as quickly as possible and sign a contract once I get into the major leagues,” Haniger said. “I just have to focus on these games coming up in these next couple months.”