The Atlanta Braves believed Michael Harris II had the ability to at least hold his own in the majors after impressing the front office and coaching staff during spring training in both 2021 and ’22.
At the very least, they knew he was the best defensive midfielder in the organization, and with Braves midfielders hitting a collective .186 through May 27 and the team under .500, they decided to roll the dice.
The Braves called up the 21-year-old from Double-A even though he had only played 43 games above Class A. Harris rewarded the Braves’ faith with one of the best rookie seasons in franchise history, batting .297/.339/.515 with 19 home runs and 20 stolen bases while defending superbly.
Harris defeated teammate Spencer Strider to win National League Rookie of the Year honors on Monday, with 22 first place votes and 134 points to Strider’s eight first place votes and 103 points. St. Louis Cardinals utility player Brendan Donovan finished third in the voting.
Harris and Strider are only the fourth pair of teammates to finish 1-2 in the voting since the rankings began in 1980. They joined the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman in 2011, the Cubs’ Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith in 1989 and the Mariners. Alvin Davis and Mark Langston in 1984.
Harris is the ninth player in Braves franchise history to win Rookie of the Year honors.
Harris was batting .305 for Double-A Mississippi when the Braves called him. Two days later, Strider made his first start after pitching out of the bullpen to start the season. The Braves took off right away, winning 15 straight from June 1 to June 15, with Harris batting .370 in that stretch. The Braves eventually rallied 10.5 games behind the Mets in late May to win their fifth straight NL East title.
“He’s very calm and he’s very consistent,” manager Brian Snitker said of Harris in early September. “It’s the whole thing. He can beat you in many different ways. With his glove, with his arm, with his legs, with his bat. Those are pretty good qualities to have in a player who can do so much to make the game to influence. .”
Harris’ all-around tools — his Statcast metrics include a 92nd percentile score in outs above average on defense, a 95th percentile score in sprint speed, and a 95th percentile score in arm strength — helped him to a 5.3 WAR season, making him just the 34th rookie position player with 5.0 WAR since the beginning of the division era in 1969.
He did it in just 114 games, the fewest of any player on the list. The only Rookies of the Year since 2010 with a higher WAR were Mike Trout, Jose Abreu, Aaron Judge and Pete Alonso.
In mid-August, the Braves awarded Harris with an eight-year, $72 million contract extension that runs through 2030, with two club option seasons that could make it worth $102 million over 10 years. Not bad for a kid who grew up a Braves fan in Stockbridge, Georgia, 35 miles south of Truist Park.
“Yeah, I definitely never thought about the year 2030,” Harris said when he signed the deal. ‘That is far. I’m just glad I got to stay here in Atlanta for so long.”
The Braves selected the hometown boy in the third round of the 2018 draft, when many teams considered Harris a pitcher. Braves scout Dana Brown, now the scouting director, saw an outfielder with power and speed. As Buster Olney wrote earlier this year, the Braves invited Harris to hit Truist Park before the draft, and he filled the outfield seats with home runs in batting practice.
Harris told the Braves, “I’m a batter.”
However, Harris hadn’t hit much power in the minors, hitting seven home runs in Class A Rome in 2021 and only five in those 43 games in Double-A. When he joined the Braves, hitting coach Kevin Seitzer had Harris make an adjustment by lowering his hands. Harris adopted the change immediately and his strength took off.
Harris spent his first three months batting at the bottom of a strong lineup in Atlanta, but placed third in the final week of the season as the Braves swept the Mets in a vital series to clinch the division title.
“As he matures and he becomes the player we all know he is, he’s probably going to stay at number 2 or 3 for a long time,” Snitker said towards the end of the season.
Strider also had a remarkable season, going 11-5 with a 2.67 ERA and striking out 202 in 131.2 at bats. Strider became just the 10th rookie since 1969 with 200 strikeouts and the first since Yu Darvish in 2012. His 13.81 strikeouts per nine innings was the second-highest ever for a pitcher with at least 100 innings, behind only Gerrit Cole’s 13.82 in 2019.
“Everyone is trying to pinpoint specific checkpoints that they’re trying to hit,” Strider said upon reaching that 200-strikeout milestone. “I don’t think I was trying to take out 200 guys in a season. That wasn’t a goal of mine. It was just to win games, keep us in games, things that I can control and have control over.”
The vote might have been closer had Strider not missed the last two weeks with some oblique tension. Strider also received his own financial reward when he signed a six-year, $75 million extension in early October that included a $22 million club option for 2029.
Harris and Strider will also receive an additional bonus through the pre-arbitration bonus pool agreed to in the new employment agreement: $750,000 for Harris and $500,000 for Strider.