Seattle Mariners

Mitch Haniger learned he belonged at All-Star Game. Now can he help Mariners get back on track?

Seattle Mariners’ Mitch Haniger follows the flight of his RBI-single off Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jeff Hoffman in the first inning of an interleague baseball game Friday, July 13, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Seattle Mariners’ Mitch Haniger follows the flight of his RBI-single off Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jeff Hoffman in the first inning of an interleague baseball game Friday, July 13, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) AP

Maybe the least surprising detail from the MLB All-Star break was that Mitch Haniger asked questions.

The 27-year-old is a sponge for hitting mechanics, so why not? His swing changes shot him from high Single-A Visalia in the Arizona Diamondbacks system to the big leagues, to his first All-Star appearance now that he’s with the Seattle Mariners.

“He’s going to ask questions – he’s very inquisitive,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He wants to continue to learn.”

So, Haniger, what did you take away from your first All-Star experience?

“Just being able to hear what guys focus on and what works for them – really most of the stuff I’ve heard before,” he said. “Nothing too crazy.”

Maybe that’s validation. Maybe that’s to say his swing change, all those workouts, all that tinkering, has paid off.

He went from watching video on Josh Donaldson and A.J. Pollock trying to reinvent himself in the minor leagues, focusing on his swing plane. Then he asked for a demotion to high Single-A ball to get more opportunities.

That was in 2015. The next year he was back in Double-A, then he dominated in Triple-A, and before long he made his major-league debut later that season with the D-Backs.

Yes, that fast.

But no videos during the All-Star break. There he said he was sitting face-to-face with J.D. Martinez, Mitch Moreland, Mookie Betts and Alex Bregman to talk about hitting and approach.

“It was great being able to pick some of these guys’ brains as far as hitting mechanics go and what makes them good and what they like to focus on,” Haniger said.

“It was fun – a little surreal, but fun. Hopefully I’ll be back there every year.”

Haniger’s 67 RBI was the third-most in the American League for the first half of the season, behind Martinez (80) and the Indians’ Jose Ramirez (70). Haniger hit .272 with 17 doubles, two triples and 18 home runs.

He’s the key to the Mariners’ offense in many ways. Haniger batted .309 in with 10 home runs in the first month of the season and has hit a combined eight home runs in the three months since, entering Saturday.

The Mariners’ offense has dug itself into a run-scoring rut in July. They’re averaging 3.16 runs per game this month, entering Saturday, with a .233 team batting average. Haniger entered Saturday batting .200 this month.

If there’s a consolation, Haniger is still getting on base a lot. He leads the Mariners in walks (49) and despite his Mendoza Line average this month, Haniger has a .362 on-base percentage in July, which is above his season average.

He said Martinez was one of the players he was most looking forward to meeting for the first time because he is another player who used a swing change to take the next step in his career.

The difference is Martinez was a 20th-round draft pick out of Nova Southeastern University, Haniger was a first-round pick out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

“Hani is, I guess you could say, one of the new age of hitters and thinkers in how he goes about it,” Servais said. “He’s made some major adjustments in his swing and they’ve worked. He continues to make adjustments and he just wants to get better.

“That’s why it doesn’t surprise me that he’d go down that road and seek out a J.D. Martinez and those guys who maybe have had similar paths – make some swing changes and all the sudden their career takes off. It’s what Haniger’s done.”

But away from chatting on hitting, Haniger said his favorite part about the All-Star Game was the atmosphere.

“Just how many fans were there and how cool it was to be with all the game’s best players and play a game and take BP with them,” Haniger said. “The experience, the whole thing was awesome, and seeing how many people came out and being able to celebrate with my family and friends.”

It was all so much that he said he spent his first day back in Seattle lounging on his couch.

“It was nice to get away from all the craziness,” he said.

He was asked if he felt the experience was surreal or if there was a sense of belonging – that he deserved to be there and if he could offer how he approaches hitting just like Martinez, Betts, Bregman and Moreland did for him.

“Both,” he said. “I realized I fit in with those guys, but at the same time it was really surreal – just growing up watching some of them and now we’re wearing the same jerseys and in the same clubhouse. It was really cool.”

And he said he still has plenty of room for improvement.

“With us losing Robinson Cano and being able to slide Mitch predominately in the three-hole for us – he’s been great,” Servais said. “He’s continuing to grow as a player. He doesn’t have the experience as some of the other players in this league at his age, but you’d never know in how he prepares and how he handles things throughout the game and how he makes adjustments.”

On tap

Left-hander Marco Gonzales (11-5, 3.38 ERA) starts the series finale for the Mariners against Angels right-hander Felix Pena (1-0, 3.42 ERA). The game starts at 1:07 p.m. Sunday at Angel Stadium and will broadcast on Root Sports and 710-AM radio.

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677; Twitter: @TJCotterill
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