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A look at Braves outfielder Michael Harris II, 200 PAs in

In the first chunk of his big-league career, the (current) youngest player in MLB has an interestingly stark profile

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In Tuesday night’s 6-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, Michael Harris II went 2-for-4 with a double, a homer off Aaron Nola, and two strikeouts in PAs 198 through 201 of his first major league season. That performance budged his wRC+ up to 128 and his fWAR to 2.4, heady numbers for MLB’s (current) youngest player and a guy who has now gotten more MLB playing time than he’s racked up, total, at any minor league level above High-A. Given that he has passed the 200 PA threshold that I like to use as a benchmark for “stuff to analyze,” this seems like as good of a time as any to check in.

Bottom line: through these 200 PAs, Harris has a very stark profile — he does certain things incredibly well, and there are obvious areas for improvement. Like most MLB players, he’s a work in progress — but that isn’t stopping him from already providing substantial production.

Below, I outline this starkness, the various pieces of which combine to give you much of the big picture of what Harris has done at the plate to date.

Harris’ contact is interestingly loud

Rather than starting wide with his overall profile and then digging in, I’m just going to dive into specific parts. The first such part is probably the most impressive part of his profile to date: he absolutely drills the ball.

xwOBACON, in addition to making some mouths water, is basically a measure of quality of contact. Hard-hit rates and barrel rates tell you how often a guy does a good thing, but xwOBACON is a little more holistic because it isn’t just a reflection of how often something does or doesn’t happen. So far this season, the league’s xwOBACON is .363, which is higher than the overall league wOBA/xwOBA of around .320. In other words, just by virtue of hitting the ball towards play, excluding walks and strikeouts, your average outcome improves by quite a bit. But, of course, contact isn’t made equal. Grounders have an xwOBA(CON) of .222, which is way worse than an average result. Fly balls are at .427, which is really good (a hitter who hit only fly balls, drawn from the set of all fly balls hit in MLB this year, would be a top-3 hitter in MLB). Liners are, of course, amazing: .643. (And pop-ups, at .040, are essentially non-contact.) I want you to keep this in mind when I tell you two facts:

  1. Michael Harris II has an xwOBACON of .421, which is about 16 percent higher than league-average.
  2. Michael Harris II has hit 54.5 percent of his balls in play on the ground, while the MLB average is about 45 percent.

Given how hard it is to have a high xwOBA(CON) on grounders... Harris must be doing something really well, right? Well, he is, but it’s not necessarily what you’d think. To be clear, Harris has a higher xwOBA(CON) across the board. Grounders are .239 versus the league’s .222, flies are .658 relative to the league’s .427, and liners are .704 relative to the league’s .643. Yet, it’s not really that he hits the ball hard.

Harris has 30 fly balls, and he’s in the top half in exit velocity among the group of 285 players with that many or more, but not even in the top third. Among the 323 players with 100 or more balls in play of any type, he’s in the 71st percentile in average exit velocity, the 74th percentile in non-grounder exit velocity, and the 67th percentile in grounder exit velocity.

So, what is it? I guess you’d call it “feel for the barrel” or some other nebulous phrase like that, but fundamentally, he just barrels the ball a lot. A “barrel” is kind of a vague concept — it’s any batted ball with a high-enough xwOBA, and while you have to hit it hard and hit it with a good launch angle, there’s leeway on both the velocity and the launch angle side if you do the other one extra-well. League-wide about 22 percent of fly balls are barreled; Harris has hit 30 fly balls so fall and barreled 10 of them. About 44 percent of the league’s flies are hit at 95+ mph, and 24 percent are hit at 100+ mph; for Harris those numbers are 57 percent and 30 percent.

The same phenomenon also happens with angle. While 15 to 25 degrees might be the overall sweet spot for outcomes, something centered around 29 degrees is generally optimal for homers (because it’s not super-easy to homer on balls with relatively low angles, though they’ll avoid being caught more often). The league hits 37 percent of its flies between 25 and 33 degrees, with an attendant .728 xwOBA; Harris has hit 63 percent of its flies in that range, with an attendant .965 xwOBA. And yeah, this is all still 30 fly balls, but he’s done some work on them.

In the end, there are 265 hitters with 200+ PAs right now, and Harris is 43rd in xwOBACON. He’s done it even though he hits a ton of grounders, and even though, pure velocity-wise, he isn’t knocking the snot out of the ball. He’s just barreling it quite a bit.

Harris can reach way more than the average player, but he doesn’t always use that ability for good

Here are Harris’ ranks among the 265 hitters with 200+ PAs, in terms of the plate discipline stats as culled from Baseball Savant:

  • Zone rate: 184th (he doesn’t see many strikes)
  • Zone swing rate: 95th (high-ish)
  • Zone contact: 164th
  • Chase rate: 6th
  • Chase contact: 167th
  • Overall swing rate: 19th
  • Overall whiff rate: 57th (higher is more whiffs)

These things don’t really paint the picture of a particularly good hitter, even though Harris has been well above average so far, even on an inputs basis. He swings a ton, but the swings are concentrated in stuff he shouldn’t be swinging at. He whiffs a ton, too, though the section above suggests that’s a perfectly fine tradeoff. Still, the chase rate is kind of an issue.

One interesting thing about the chase rate, though, is that he’s really getting beat on pitcher’s pitches. Generally, I am pretty blah on the Statcast/Baseball Savant “swing-take profiles,” (shown below for Harris), because they use outputs (wOBA) rather than inputs (xwOBA), which can provide misleading results. But they also factor in pitch-by-pitch swing/take data (hence the name), so they’re somewhat useful anyway.

There’s a lot going on here, but I’ll just try to hit the highlights. If you look at the middle, Harris has seen a bit fewer pitches in the heart of the zone, and a bit more on the edges and in the “chase” area. His swing rate is elevated everywhere. I find the conversion to runs at the left side and the right side a little confusing, because it isn’t benchmarked against anything. With that said, we can benchmark it to the median of 300 players that have seen the most pitches, and we get:

  • Heart: League -3, Harris -1
  • Shadow: League -8, Harris +5
  • Chase: League +7, Harris +3
  • Waste: League +5, Harris +3

You can see that there are both good things and bad things. Harris swings more at everything, including pitches in the zone, and we already know he does a lot of damage on contact, so hooray for Harris there. Despite his elevated swing rate, he has done a great job in the 50-50ish “shadow” zone — hitters leaguewide have a .286 xwOBA and .330 xwOBACON on those edge pitches, but Harris doesn’t seem fazed by them at all. He swings at so much that he doesn’t get caught looking by them (.324 xwOBA), but his real potential skill here is hitting them well. He has a .413 xwOBA on the 76 edge-type pitches he’s hit towards play this season.

I don’t know much about hitting mechanics or kinetics, but fundamentally, Harris appears to have no trouble covering pitches that aren’t in the meaty part of the zone. (In fact, while I have no idea whether this is true or not, his elevated swing and chase rates may simply be derived from the notion that he can make good contact on things beyond the standard confines of the rulebook strike zone.) I submit to you the following video evidence:

Naturally, I cherry-picked good results here. There are lots of bad ones, too, where Harris’ ability to go and get anything anywhere near the zone leads to bad decisions (one, two, three, four). But the aggregate stats are the aggregate stats, and he hasn’t just done relatively well when swinging at borderline pitches, he’s done just about as well on contact as he has overall.

The real issue is the chase zone. I skipped past doing the “heart” area separately, but basically for anything somewhat near the zone, Harris has the league beat in both xwOBA and xwOBACON. When pitchers try to expand the zone further, though, he hasn’t adjusted. The league has a .297 xwOBA and .250 xwOBACON on pitches in the “chase” area; Harris actually has a superb (and kind of unthinkable) .330 xwOBACON there, but his xwOBA itself is .188 because he’s swung at 73 of the 183 pitches he’s seen in that zone (40 percent). To put that into context, the league chases 28 percent of pitches, period... while Harris is swinging at 40 percent of the pitches he sees that basically no one should be swinging at, ever.

And yet, he can still get to some of those, too... though he probably shouldn’t, even if he did hit his first career homer on a chase pitch:

The holes in his swing can probably be adjusted against

This is probably just a small-sample artifact, but you can see from the xwOBA and xwOBACON graphics here that the “holes” in his swing are middle-in and down-and-away.

He actually had a .331 xwOBA on low-and-away through June, but just a .200 mark since. On the flip side, the inner third and a bit further in was a struggle through about June 28 (.295 xwOBA), but he’s keyed in to the inside pitch and has a .394 xwOBA on it since. It may continue to be a dance for him, but he doesn’t appear to be a guy that is going to take forever to figure out how pitchers are going to attack him and then eons to actually pivot to countering their approach.

Lefties are going to pose a challenge

Lefty batters struggle with lefty pitchers — this is a not-too-interesting truism. Harris is no different. He has a .371 xwOBA against righties and a .239 xwOBA against lefties. It hasn’t really improved with time, either, and a big xwOBA outperformance (.285 wOBA) against southpaws makes things look better than they are.

When he’s had the platoon advantage, Harris has mostly hunted and punished fastballs (.427 xwOBA), but struggled against changeups and curves. When he’s lacked the platoon advantage, he’s gotten eaten up by basically everything, and hasn’t been able to handle lefty-on-lefty four-seamers at all. His defense probably makes him a non-starter as a long-term platoon candidate (and hey, give him way more than 200 total PAs before you decide to bench him against lefties even if you don’t care about defense for some reason), but it’s one thing to struggle against same-handed breaking pitches and another to not really even be able to get around on lefty-lefty fastballs.

The line isn’t really that bouncy... but boy this guy’s inputs hate matching up with his outputs

There’s no great way to illustrate this, but I want to show you granular changes in Harris’ batting line through 200 PAs, versus that of Travis d’Arnaud. Both guys had basically identical xwOBAs through their first 200 PAs this season. I’m not really holding up d’Arnaud as a paragon of consistency here, and I didn’t do the same analysis for every player since I wanted someone close to Harris’ endpoint after 200 PAs, but just take a gander:

The only reason I bring this up is because Harris’ line has felt bouncy - he went from a blah .292 to a fine .318 in one 20-PA stretch, and then from a fine .321 to a great .345 as a result of one great 20-PA performance. But so does everyone, really.

However, there’s something pretty funny going on with Harris’ outputs relative to his inputs. To wit:

Or, in other words:

  • First 100 PAs: .379 wOBA (fantabulous), .309 xwOBA (meh)
  • Next 200 PAs: .320 wOBA (okay), .346 xwOBA (very solid)

Again, this isn’t un-normal or anything. But it does make assessing his performance so far kind of a moving target. He’s still outhitting his xwOBA a bit overall, but it’s come as a result of first-month overperformance followed by second-month underperformance. If you’re not looking closely, you might think he’s “cooled off” or “the league is figuring him out,” but it’s really kind of the opposite. It’s just those damn balls-in-play and their variation getting in the way.

Bottom line: Michael Harris II has had a pretty cool start to his career

In the end, Harris is the youngest player in MLB, is running an above-average xwOBA in his first 200 career PAs, has some really great quality of contact things going on, and has a few specific things to work on — like chasing some real bad pitches, and figuring out how to hit lefties. He’s already shown some effective adjustments, including starting to cover the inner portion of the zone effectively, and his tendency to swing at everything is somewhat buoyed by the fact that he doesn’t just hit meatballs hard — you have to really get it out of the zone to avoid his ability to do damage.

Thanks to his speed (third-best baserunning value on the team despite fewer PAs than the two guys above him) and defense (ditto; the two guys above him have bigger positional adjustments and more PAs), Harris is already third among Braves position players in fWAR, surpassing Matt Olson. (A fun game I’ve played is “does Harris or Olson have the higher xwOBA right now?”) He’s going to have even more ups-and-downs than he’s already had, but even leaving aside the speed/defense combo that will keep him in the lineup, there are some really interesting offensive tools here, and I look forward to him continuing to brandish them as Braves drive towards yet another successful season, one in which he’s played a huge role so far.

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