The Atlanta Braves believed Michael Harris II had the ability to hold his own in at least the majors after impressing the front office and coaching staff in spring training in both 2021-22.
At least they knew he was the best defensive midfielder in the organization, and with the Braves midfielders hitting a collective .186 and the team under .500 by May 27, they decided to roll the dice.
The Braves called up the 21-year-old from Double-A despite playing just 43 games above Class A. Harris rewarded the Braves’ faith with one of the best rookie seasons in franchise history, hitting .297/.339/.515 with 19 homers and 20 stolen bases while playing an outstanding defense.
“I feel like the whole season was unrealistic,” Harris said. But now that the season is over I think I can look back and reflect on what a crazy year it was and how quickly it went.”
Harris beat teammate Spencer Strider to win the National League Rookie of the Year award on Monday. He garnered 22 first-place votes and 134 points versus Strider’s eight first-place votes and 103 points. St. Louis Cardinals utility player Brendan Donovan placed third in the voting.
Harris and Strider become only the fourth pair of teammates to end the voting 1-2 since ranked voting began in 1980. They join 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 hit .305 for Double-A Mississippi when the Braves called him. Two days later, Strider made his first start after throwing from the bullpen to start the season. The Braves started straight away and went on to win 15 straight games from June 1-15, with Harris hitting a .370 over that stretch. The Braves eventually rebounded from 10.5 games behind the Mets in late May to win their fifth straight NL East title.
“He’s very calm and very consistent,” manager Brian Snitker said of Harris in early September. “It’s the whole thing. He can hit you in many different ways. With his glove, with his arm, with his legs, with his racquet. Those are pretty good qualities for a player who can do so much to improve the game influence .”
Harris’ all-around tools — his Statcast measurements included a 92nd percentile ranking for above-average outs on defense, a 95th percentile ranking for sprint speed, and a 95th percentile for arm strength — helped him achieve a 5.3- WAR season that made him just the 34th rookie player with a 5.0 WAR since the divisional era began in 1969.
He’s made it in just 114 games, the fewest of any player on the list. The only rookies of the year with a higher WAR since 2010 have been Mike Trout, Jose Abreu, Aaron Judge and Pete Alonso.
In mid-August, the Braves rewarded Harris with an eight-year, $72 million contract extension that runs through 2030, with two club option seasons that could take it to $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 2030,” Harris said when he signed the deal. “That’s a long way. I’m just glad I can stay here in Atlanta for this long.”
The Braves picked the hometown kid in the third round of the 2018 draft — when many teams were considering Harris as a pitcher. Braves scout Dana Brown, now scouting director, saw an outfielder with power and speed. As Buster Olney wrote earlier this year, the Braves invited Harris to bat at Truist Park before the draft and he filled the outfield spots with home runs in batting practice.
Harris told the Braves, “I’m a hitter.”
However, Harris hadn’t garnered much power in the minors, hitting seven homers at Class A Rome in 2021 and just five in those 43 games at Double-A. When he joined the Braves, Harris, after meeting coach Kevin Seitzer, had an adjustment made and his hands lowered. Harris immediately embraced the change and his power diminished.
Harris spent his first three months finishing at the bottom of a strong Atlanta lineup but finished third in the final week of the season as the Braves defeated the Mets in a crucial series to win the division title.
“As he matures and he becomes that player that we all know he is, he’s probably going to stay 2nd or 3rd for a long time,” Snitker said towards the end of the season.
Strider also had a notable season, going 11-5 with a 2.67 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 131.2 innings. Strider became only 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 all-time for a pitcher with at least 100 innings, behind only Gerrit Cole’s 13.82 in 2019.
“Everyone is trying to locate specific checkpoints that they’re trying to hit,” Strider said of hitting that 200 strikeout milestone. “I don’t think I’ve tried to beat 200 players in one season. That wasn’t my goal. It was just about winning games, keeping us in games, things that I can control and control.”
The vote might have been closer if Strider hadn’t missed the last two weeks with an oblique strain. Strider also received his own financial reward when he signed a six-year, $75 million extension in early October that includes a $22 million club option for 2029.
Harris and Strider will also receive an additional bonus through the pre-arbitration bonus pool agreed in the new employment agreement: $750,000 for Harris and $500,000 for Strider.