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Starting Nine: Let’s have the Harris vs. Strider ROY debate

Dissecting the case of each of the Braves’ award finalists, and thoughts on the latest HOF bids of Fred McGriff and Dale Murphy

Spencer Strider (left) and Michael Harris II are vying to give the Braves their seventh National League Rookie of the Year.

Between the announcement of the finalists for MLB’s biggest end-of-the-year awards and the release of the players that comprise the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Contemporary Era Committee, the Atlanta Braves have found themselves squarely in the spotlight this week.

With Max Fried one of the contenders for the National League Cy Young, Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider up for Rookie of the Year and Brian Snitker in the running for Manager of the Year, the Braves combined for more finalists than any other club with Tuesday’s Baseball Writers Association of American awards extravaganza.

Then there’s Fred McGriff and Dale Murphy, whose biggest career moments came during their time in Atlanta. The two made the cut in Monday’s reveal, joining Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling on the HOF ballot.

It provides plenty of fodder for this week’s Starting Nine, as we make the case for each of the award finalists and discuss the latest HOF bids for McGriff and Murphy ... and we start with the debate that we’ve all been having internally for months.

1. Harris or Strider, who should be Rookie of the Year?

It’s not hyperbole to say the Braves aren’t winning a fifth straight NL East tile without the impact of both Harris and Strider.

In a perfect world, the voters have a repeat of 1976, when the San Diego Padres’ Butch Metzger and Cincinnati Reds’ Pat Zachry ended in a tie for NL ROY, with both earning 11 of the 24 first-place votes. But in a potential preview, Strider took both the Sporting News and Players Choice awards for the NL’s top rookie, including beating out Harris 47 percent-41 percent for the Sporting News honors.

Outside of Aaron Judge vs. Shohei Ohtani for American League MVP, there may not be a more fascinating debate, because if Harris and Strider — who are joined by the St. Louis Cardinals’ Brendan Donovan — can’t share the award, it really comes down to a matter of history vs. everyday impact.

Strider penned one of the most dominating first years by a pitcher in years, amplified by the fact that he didn’t even move into the rotation until May 30.

He threw his four-seam fastball 67 percent of the time, more than any other pitcher and knowing what was coming didn’t matter. The 24-year-old became the fastest ever to 200 strikeouts, needing exactly 130 innings to break the mark of Randy Johnson, who took 130 2/3 innings in 2001 and fanned a franchise record 16 on Sept. 1 vs. the Colorado Rockies. He finished with a 2.67 ERA and his 13.8 strikeouts per nine set a new rookie record, breaking Kerry Wood’s 12.6 in 1998 for the Chicago Cubs.

Strider’s 4.9 fWAR was the best of any Braves rookie pitcher since World War I and he finished 0.1 behind Fried for the team lead, despite Fried throwing 53 2/3 more innings.

While Strider rewrote the club’s record books, Harris gave the Braves something they’ve been lacking since the days of Andruw Jones: the combination of a lockdown presence in center field and an electric bat.

Skipping Triple-A to shore up the outfield defense, Harris surprised with his bat, slashing .297/.339/.514 with 19 home runs, 64 RBI and 20 stolen bases, and, yes, he lived up to the billing with the glove, with eight Defensive Runs Saved and seven Outs Above Average.

Largely hitting ninth, Harris helped the Braves lead the majors in that spot with a .269 average and ISO (.199), and tie for first in OPS (.788) and rank second in wRC+ (118).

His May 28 arrival allowed the Braves to go from 18th in center field production (95 wRC+) before his arrival to tie for fourth (117 wRC+) the rest of the way.

Harris’ 4.8 fWAR is tied with Dusty Baker in 1972 for the second highest of any rookie position player in franchise history, trailing only Rico Carty’s 5.0 in 1964.

How do you decide between those two?

Strider was a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, while the Braves went from a .468 winning percentage before Harris’ arrival (eighth in the NL) to an MLB-best .687 clip after his debut.

It’s a given they’ll finish 1-2, the first such ROY result for the Braves since Craig Kimbrel won over Freddie Freeman in 2011, and the third time teammates were first and second in the voting following 1989, when the Cubs’ Jerome Walton was first and Dwight Smith came in second.

The inclination is to side with the unprecedented and Strider, but it’s truly an embarrassment of riches — figuratively and literally — as both were locked up to extensions with less than a year service time.

2. How high will Fried finish in the Cy Young voting?

In making the cut along with the Miami Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara and the Los Angeles Dodger’s Julio Urias, Fried is guaranteed of the Braves’ best finish in the Cy Young voting since John Smoltz was third in 2002 ... but will the left-hander end up higher than that?

He won’t beat out Alcantara, who is and should be considered the favorite after a season in which he had a 2.28 ERA (second lowest in the NL) and was a workhorse with 228 2/3 innings — which is 43 1/3 more than Fried and 53 2/3 more than Urias — and six complete games, the most of any pitcher since Chris Sale in 2016.

Fried’s 2.48 ERA trails both Alcantara and Urias, the NL leader at 2.16, but the Braves’ ace had a better FIP (2.70 to 3.71), walked fewer batters (1.55 BB/9 to Urias’ 2.11), allowed fewer home runs (12 to Urias’ 23), and posted a substantially higher fWAR (5.0 to 3.2) in less than 10 more innings pitched.

Look for Fried to finish second, which would be the best for a Brave since another southpaw, Tom Glavine, was runner-up in 2000.

3. Will Snitker win another Manager of the Year?

Three managers who piloted their teams to 100-win seasons make up the NL Manager of the Year finalists, as Snitker is joined by the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts and New York Mets’ Buck Showalter.

None of them led their teams past the NL Division Series, though the voting is based solely on the regular season, so that’s all irrelevant. Roberts won 111 games — the most in the NL since the 1906 Cubs won 116 — while Showalter and Snitker both won 101.

Roberts had his hurdles to overcome, including a rotation that was beseeched by injuries, including losing Walker Buehler to Tommy John surgery, and lineup mainstays (Max Muncy, Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger) that underperformed. Snitker, though, overcame a 10 1/2 game deficit to beat out another 100-win team and win a fifth straight division crown.

Considering Showalter is the manager that lost that double-digit division lead and had the highest payroll in baseball, he feels a distant third to the Roberts and Snitker.

Since the BBWAA began awarding the Manager of the Year in 1983, only two previous teams have won more than 108 games, the 2001 Seattle Mariners with 116 victories and the 1998 Yankees with 114. Both Lou Piniella (Seattle) and Joe Torre (New York) won the award those years. From that end, Roberts probably wins.

While baseball’s major awards will be doled out next week — the ROY on Nov. 14, the Manager of the Year on the 15th and the Cy Young on the 16th, with the MVPs the 17th — the wait will be a bit longer for the HOF’s Contemporary Era Committee, the results of which will be announced Dec. 4 at the Winter Meetings in San Diego.

There will be plenty of more time for dissecting the potential fates of McGriff and Murphy until then, but for starters ...

4. What to expect from the Contemporary Era Committee

Was last year an aberration or are the gatekeepers softening? At last December’s Winter Meetings, the Early Baseball and Golden Days Era committees met and inducted four players, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso and Tony Oliva.

That was the first time since 1971 that the Veterans/Era committees had rubber stamped more than three players and came on the heels of one of the more questionable decisions by the groups had made in inducting Harold Baines. He’s become a lightning rod for these proceedings, but frankly should be with a resume that’s devoid of any MVP-caliber seasons and never garnered more than 6.1 percent of the votes from the writers.

But if Baines is the floor, it changes the conversation, which could be why the next year the Modern Baseball Era committee elected Ted Simmons, who dropped off the ballot in his first year of eligibility in 1994 and was rejected in sever different attempts on the committee ballot. After taking a year’s hiatus due to travel concerns around the pandemic, the committees met and voted in Hodges, Kaat, Minoso and Oliva.

That feels like a change in the climate more so than an atypical year. Of course, they have yet to open the door for anyone associated with PEDs, which this ballot has plenty of with Bonds, Clemens, and Palmeiro, but the seemingly revamped thinking figures to bode well for McGriff and Murphy.

Speaking of ...

5. McGriff, for your consideration

What McGriff — the five-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger winner and member of the 1995 champion Braves — figures to get now that he’s away from the glut of the crowded writers’ ballot is the benefit of the doubt.

Seven home runs. That’s all that stood between McGriff and that 500-homer milestone that’s a virtual lock for enshrinement, the first baseman’s career numbers a victim of the 1994 player’s strike. Despite that, McGriff peaked at 39.8 percent during his time on the main ballot, where 75 percent is needed for induction.

He had 34 home runs as of Aug. 11, 1994, the day before the strike started, and had 27 over the 144-game schedule the following season. If they had played 162 in 1994 and 1995, it’s clear that McGriff — who was averaging 33 homers a year per 162 games from 1988-2002 — would have hit at least seven more home runs.

As it stands, McGriff is the lone player on either the writers’ ballot or being considered by the Era Committee who hit at least 493 home runs and had 2,490 hits and did it without controversy.

He feels like a shoo-in, especially when he’s stacked against multiple players on his ballot whose careers and numbers are clouded by scandal.

6. Murphy, for your consideration

This will be Murphy’s third time on the Era Committees ballot, falling short in 2018 and 2020. The two-time MVP received fewer than seven votes from the 16-member panel in 2018 — despite Braves HOFers Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz being on part of that group — and got three or less votes in 2020 from the likes of contemporaries George Brett, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, and Robin Yount.

Why will this time be different?

If we’re going back to Baines as that baseline, Murphy hit 14 more home runs (398 to 384) despite Baines playing 650 more games, and the two had an identical 121 OPS+ and Murphy had Baines beat in fWAR (44.3 to 38.4).

From 1980-89, Murphy amassed 43.8 fWAR, 12th in the decade, and every player in front of him — and five behind him in Andre Dawson, Paul Molitor, Ryne Sandberg, Tony Gwynn, and Dave Winfield — are all already in Cooperstown. He truly helped define a decade.

Add in the negativity that surrounds the cases of Bonds, Clemens, Palmeiro, and Schilling, and it only figures to put a brighter spotlight on Murphy. It’s important to note that electors can vote for a maximum of three candidates, and if a group that includes those who played against those linked to PEDs aren’t willing to get behind them, Murphy could benefit.

7. What it will take to get deGrom doesn’t fit Braves’ M.O.

Despite owner Steve Cohen’s comments that the Mets will do “whatever we can” to keep Jacob deGrom, there seems to be a slightly different tone coming out of the GM Meetings in Las Vegas.

Per SNY’s Andy Martino, the Mets are hesitant to go up to four years if another team offered four at a high salary figure for the two-time Cy Young winner, who opted out of the remaining two years of the five-year, $137.5 million deal he signed in 2019.

The Braves have long been noted as a potential landing spot if deGrom doesn’t return to the Mets and has Atlanta with the second-best odds of signing deGrom in that case at 4-1, behind only the Dodgers at 3-1.

Expectations that deGrom wants to meet or succeed the $43.3 million annually that Max Scherzer is receiving on his current three-year deal is a red flag for a franchise that has never paid a player more than $23 million in a single season. If shopping in that aisle isn’t Braves-like, so too is meeting the likelihood that deGrom is going to want full no-trade clauses and opt-outs, two things the Braves have never done under general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ direction.

As Anthopoulos told Martino: “I’ve been here the last five years, going into year six. If we think something makes sense for the organization, we do it. We’ve done all kinds of things.

“We had never done a $200 million contract. We did it with Austin Riley. We’ve never done a 10-year deal. We did it with Austin Riley. But that wasn’t like there was some rule. It just worked out that way.

“We don’t really have anything we’re locked in on. We’re just open-minded to everything and if we think it makes sense, it makes the club better then we’re gonna look to do it.”

Never say never, but given the peripherals with the cost, injury concern and age, the Braves’ inclusion feels like a tactic to put pressure on the Mets more than he’d actually join the division rival.

8. Making sense of the Allard-Odorizzi swap

There was some confusion in Wednesday’s deal with the Texas Rangers, in which the Braves brought back 2015 draft pick Kolby Allard for Jake Odorizzi and cash.

It was expected that Odorizzi, who had a player option for 2023 at $6.5 million, would instead take the $6.25 million buyout and hit the free-agent market ... except Odorizzi’s option wasn’t for $6.5 million. It had ballooned to $12.5 million, and after struggling to a 4.40 ERA, including 5.24 ERA after being traded from the Houston Astros to Atlanta, Odorizzi was taking the guaranteed money.

The three-year, $23.5 million deal the Astros inked him to in 2021 included an option year that escalated based on performance. If Odorizzi got into 20, 25 or 30 games he’d add $2 million to the salary and $1 million to the buyout at each step. He blew past those milestones, getting into 46 games and the option was hence maxed out.

The Braves basically saved $2.5 million, sending a reported $10 million along with Odorizzi, and removed a relatively expensive and underperforming veteran from a crowded group of potential starters.

Allard, who has a career 6.07 ERA, may not make the cut with the likes of Ian Anderson, Bryce Elder, Kyle Muller, Jared Shuster and Mike Soroka vying for the fifth spot, but all make more sense than Odorizzi, who never clicked in a Braves uniform.

9. Christmas ... with Blooper?

The email hit inboxes Wednesday afternoon, the announcement that Blooper Claus is coming to town, and the mascot posted on his Instagram the invitation to “come get you a photo with Saint Thiccolas.”

For $100, up to eight people get a 15-minute experience that includes a walk through the Braves’ dugout, batting cages and clubhouse and a holiday-themed photo with Blooper.

Here’s hoping Blooper is properly attired for those who book. He’s been known to cast aside traditional values.

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