For the first two months of 2021, the Braves were seemingly stuck in the mud, consistently stymied by their own inconsistency. The team perhaps needed a shot in the arm, and they got exactly that when Michael Harris II was called up from Double-A on May 27. When the dust settled on the season, it’s safe to say that no one could’ve seen Harris’ impact coming after he had played just 43 games in the high minors.
The Braves selected Harris in the third round of the 2019 MLB draft, 98th overall. He raked in Rookie ball after being drafted, struggled in A-ball after a promotion, had the COVID-related layoff in 2020, and then hit reasonably well in High-A in 2021.
What were the expectations?
For the 2022 season, given his High-A performance, it’s hard to say that many expected Harris to make the majors at all, much less make the impact he did. A 114 wRC+ in High-A doesn’t scream “promote him now!” and his various prospect rankings and FVs weren’t that high. In short, Harris didn’t seem like a guy you’d rush to the majors, at least until he was rushed to the majors and took the league by storm.
After fewer than 200 PAs (196) in Double-A before his promotion, over which he put up a 130 wRC+, Harris got the call to the majors. While the Braves may have thought that doing so would stabilize the outfield defense, given that Adam Duvall seemed to be flagging after playing so much in center field, Ronald Acuña Jr. wasn’t able to consistently play the field given his recovery from his ACL injury, and the less said about Eddie Rosario and Marcell Ozuna the better, Harris ended up contributing a ton on both sides of the ball.
For the season, Harris threw up 4.8 fWAR with a 136 wRC+, and 6 OAA-based runs above average defensively in center. Given that he came up after the season’s first two months, it’s worth noting that his 4.8 fWAR over 441 PAs pro-rates to over 6.5 fWAR per 600 PAs, an absurd mark that would’ve made him a top-10 player in the majors, assuming he was actually able to perform at that rate for the extra 160ish PAs. Even without that pro-rating, Harris finished 26th among position players in fWAR.
In the end, he won the NL Rookie of the Year award, with his only real competition being teammate Spencer Strider, who joined the rotation around the time Harris was called up and finished slightly ahead of Money Mike with 4.9 fWAR.
What went right? What went wrong?
Nothing really went wrong for Harris and the Braves, pretty much everything went right. The ball-in-play stuff was about as generous to Harris as he was miserly on defense, as he outhit his xwOBA by .033. Fret not, though, the .335 xwOBA was still above-average, and Harris showed well above average exit velocity and contact quality. On a pitch basis, Harris only posted a sub-.300 xwOBA against curves, and he terrorized four-seamers with a .400+ xwOBA.
If you had to point to specific struggle areas, two come to mind easily. One was that Harris chased like crazy, which had substantial implications for his strikeout and walk rates. However, this flaw was ameliorated in large part by his swing, which really didn’t mind if certain types of pitches weren’t over the plate. Among the 230 MLB batters in 2022 that hit 50 or more non-strikes into the field of play, Harris ranked second in wOBA (.426) and 30th in xwOBA (.323). Given that league-wide xwOBA on contact is well above .323, this isn’t to say that Harris’ chasing was actually a great thing — only that because he was able to smack certain non-strikes really hard, his free swinging didn’t hurt him nearly as much as it hurts your average bear.
Here’s a game-tying homer off a non-strike:
Here’s a go-ahead homer against an even worse (as in, no reason to swing) pitch:
Here’s Harris homering on a pitch that wasn’t even close to borderline:
You get the idea.
The other issue for Harris was, and looks to be, a lot thornier: Harris really couldn’t hit lefties. For the season, he put up a 161 wRC+ against righties and an 80 wRC+ against lefties. Those numbers look even worse when you look under the hood: he had a .382 xwOBA against righties, but the not-unplayable .285 wOBA/80 wRC+ against lefties was the result of a gigantic xwOBA overperformance, and his .229 xwOBA against lefties was about as unthinkably bad as his season overall was unthinkably good.
Aside from the few cutters and changeups he saw from lefties, Harris really struggled against them across the board. He only managed a .327 xwOBA against four-seamers from lefties, and was obliterated by lefty curves and sliders. This probably represents his biggest area of needed improvement going forward, and it’s not clear whether his inability to hit lefties is the result of being thrown into the deep end of major league matchups so quickly, or something inherent to his approach and swing. We’ll find out, for sure.
Oh, but these two things aside, Harris really was amazing. He added about six runs of value from his baserunning alone and finished a homer shy of a 20-20 season despite getting fewer than 450 PAs. He posted a 173 wRC+ (and .379 xwOBA!) from the seventh inning onward, a wRC+ of 208 in high leverage, and a wRC+ of 150 in all non-low leverage situations. He finished in the top 10 in outs above average in center field, despite again, not playing in MLB for the first two months or so of the year. His component defensive pieces, including sprint speed, jump, and arm strength, were all ranked in the 89th percentile or higher among MLB regulars.
Things also went pretty right for Harris and the Braves financially, as the two linked up for a $72 million, eight-year extension in mid-August that contains two club options.
Beyond the fun homers on non-strikes, Harris had a bunch of other great moments in 2022. Remember this game-tying homer against a lefty that led to a three-run rally in the ninth, turning a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 win?
What about this back-against-the-wall game-tying homer, that sadly did not lead to a Braves win?
And yeah, there were some struggles, often against lefties, as noted. One of Harris’ most brutal games came in a 1-0 loss to the Phillies on September 22 — Harris faced only lefties in the game, and rolled out four times, including this one with the bases loaded when facing Ranger Suarez for a third time:
And while Harris usually came through, he didn’t always. July 7 was a bit of a case of whiplash for both him and the Braves in this regard — while he hit that game-tying homer off Giovanny Gallegos in the seventh, he hit the flyout in the ninth that Phil Gosselin goofed on, turning a leadoff walk representing the winning run into a stupid double play, and then grounded out — against a lefty, of course — to end the game:
We don’t know what Harris’ encore will look like, but are pretty excited to find out. Steamer’s point estimate has Harris providing another four-plus win season in 2023, this time with more PAs and a worse overall, but still well above average, batting line and above-average defense. If he fixes his platoon issues, though, watch out. Well, watch out even more than you already should be.