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 in spring training in both 2021 and ’22.
At the minimum, they knew he was the best defensive center fielder in the organization, and with Braves center fielders 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 played just 43 games above Class A. Harris rewarded the Braves’ belief with one of the best rookie seasons in franchise history, hitting .297/.339/ .515 with 19 home runs and 20 stolen bases while playing outstanding defense.
“I feel like the whole season was unrealistic,” Harris said. “I was just going day to day and I guess living the dream. But now that the season’s over, I guess I can actually look back and think about how crazy of a year it was and how fast it went.”
Harris beat out teammate Spencer Strider to win National League Rookie of the Year honors on Monday, collecting 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 just the fourth pair of teammates to finish 1-2 in the voting since ranked balloting began in 1980, joining 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 hitting .305 for Double-A Mississippi when the Braves called him up. Two days later, Strider made his first start after pitching out of the bullpen to begin the season. The Braves immediately took off, winning 15 in a row from June 1 through June 15, with Harris hitting .370 in that stretch. The Braves eventually rallied from 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 a lot of different ways. With his glove, with his arm, with his legs, with his bat. That’s pretty good qualities to have in a player that can do so much to impact the game .”
Harris’ all-around tools — his Statcast measurements included a 92nd percentile ranking in outs above average on defense, a 95th percentile ranking in sprint speed and a 95th percentile 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 divisional era began 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 rewarded Harris with an eight-year contract extension worth $72 million 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’s far. I’m just glad to be able to stay here in Atlanta that long.”
The Braves selected the hometown kid in the third round of the 2018 draft — when many teams viewed Harris as 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 at Truist Park before the draft, and he filled the outfield seats with home runs in batting practice.
Harris told the Braves: “I am a hitter.”
Harris, however, hadn’t hit for much power in the minors, slugging seven home runs at Class A Rome in 2021 and just five in those 43 games at Double-A. Upon joining the Braves, hitting coach Kevin Seitzer had Harris make an adjustment, lowering his hands. Harris took to the change immediately and his power took off.
Harris spent his first three months hitting at the bottom of a strong Atlanta lineup, but was hitting third the final week of the season when the Braves swept the Mets in a crucial series to wrap up the division title.
“As he matures and he becomes this player we all know he is, he will probably be at that number 2 or 3 spot for a long time,” Snitker said near the end of the season.
Strider also had a remarkable season, going 11-5 with a 2.67 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 131.2 innings. 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.
“Everybody tries to pinpoint specific checkpoints that they’re trying to achieve,” Strider said when reaching that 200-strikeout milestone. “I don’t think I was trying to strike 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 voting may have been closer if Strider hasn’t missed the final two-plus 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 extra bonus via the pre-arbitration bonus pool agreed to in the new labor deal: $750,000 for Harris and $500,000 for Strider.