The kids are way more than alright; they’ve been transformative.
When Michael Harris II made his debut on May 28, the Atlanta Braves were below .500 and three games out of the third wild card spot. After Wednesday’s 14-2 win over the Pirates, they’re 56-24 since Harris’ call-up, leading the majors in runs (431), while ranking third in wOBA (.343) and fifth in fWAR (17.3).
They’ve also claimed four of Strider’s last five starts, wins over four teams in postseason position in the Phillies (twice), Mets and Astros, and have dropped just two games since Grissom arrived Aug. 10.
It’s all played a major role in the Braves trimming the Mets’ lead in the National League East to 1 1⁄2 games and opening up a commanding 10-game cushion for the top wild card spot.
“It’s huge. ... to not only fulfill dreams they’ve had since they were kids, but it gives energy to all the older guys like me,” said catcher Travis d’Arnaud. “Makes you want to play harder, makes you want to do more, makes you want to get as much excitement as they do. It’s a trickling effects, and thankfully for us, it’s working out for all of us.”
With two Rookie of the Year contenders in Harris and Strider, and another budding star in Grissom — who has everyone wondering how the Braves are going to juggle things once two-time All-Star Ozzie Albies returns to take back his second base job — the rookies have been one of the defining stories of this Braves’ season.
So, dig in for an all-rookie Starting Nine.
MICHAEL HARRIS II.— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) August 19, 2022
THE ROOKIES DELIVER. pic.twitter.com/zbGmJkLEj4
1. The most impactful collection of rookies in Braves history
In 2005, a group of rookies — there was 18 of them to be exact — helped extend the Atlanta Braves’ run of division titles with what would be the last of 14 in that streak.
Seventeen years later, they’re being surpassed by a collection of young stars who may be the most impactful rookies in franchise history.
Topped by Jeff Francoeur’s 3.0 fWAR offensively and Kyle Davies (0.7) on the mound, the Baby Braves amassed 8.4 fWAR. With 36 games remaining, the current Atlanta rookies have already equalled them.
Strider — who makes his next start Friday against the St. Louis Cardinals — leads all rookies with 3.3 fWAR; Michael Harris II is the NL position players with 3.2 fWAR; and just 15 games in, Vaughn Grissom already has a higher fWAR (1.1) than what Ozzie Albies (1.0) had in 62 games.
Add in Dylan Lee, who is closing in on 1.0 fWAR (0.8 with a 2.72 ERA 10.40 K/9 and 1.49 BB/9 in 36 1/3 innings across 32 appearances) and the Braves will have as many rookies worth one win or more as that 2005 group.
And we’ve come this far without even mentioning that the Braves have already locked up Harris with an eight-year, $72 million extension that assures that he’ll be part of the club’s foundation stretching into the next decade.
“I just feel like throughout the whole system we have a group of guys that combine together and we have good chemistry playing at each level together,” Harris said. “We just go out and have fun each night.”
"@MoneyyyMikeee is one of those guys that has no heartbeat even in the biggest situations."@Braves manager Brian Snitker speaks on the impact of the team's rookies and praises GM Alex Anthopoulos for securing a strong core under contract for years #HighHeat | @alannarizzo pic.twitter.com/K8uWJG1noX— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) August 23, 2022
2. Harris and Strider’s fWAR pace
The Braves rookie fWAR record belongs to Kid Nichols, who was a 8.4 WAR player in winning 27 games with a 2.23 ERA in 1890. That mark is going to survive this season, and likely so will the position player mark of 5.0 set by Rico Carty in 1964. Harris and Strider, though, figure to still have their names far up the franchise’s all-time list with the pace they’re on.
Strider, who was at 0.7 fWAR as a reliever, had been worth 2.6 wins in his 15 starts. With the potential of eight more starts, should he continue to get his normal turns on five-days rest, is trending toward a 4.6 fWAR season. That would surpass Mike Soroka’s 4.0 in 2019 for the best of any Braves pitcher since 1913.
Meanwhile, Harris is pacing toward a 4.3 fWAR, which would top Ronald Acuña Jr.’s 4.1 from his ROY season of 2018, and give Harris the fifth best debut in franchise history. He’d be behind Carty, Dusty Baker (4.8 fWAR in 1972), Jason Heyward (4.6 fWAR in 2010) and Wally Berger (4.5 fWAR in 1930).
Regardless, it’s a given that Harris and Strider’s combined fWAR will set the club’s post-World War II record for a rookie position player and pitcher, besting outfielder Carden Gillenwater and left-hander Bob Logan, who had 6.6 fWAR in 1945.
3. The Rookie of the Year debate
Those fWAR paces, with just 0.1 difference between them, underscores what’s going to be a fascinating debate. Should Harris be Rookie of the Year? Strider? Both?
The Braves had Craig Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman finish 1-2, respectively, in 2011, but that vote wasn’t close, as Kimbrel received all 32 first-place votes. Before that, the previous 1-2 finish by teammates was the Chicago Cubs with Jerome Walton receiving 22 first-place nods to two going to Dwight Smith.
But the last time a team had a position player and pitcher come in first and second was Seattle Mariners first baseman Alvin Dark winning over left-hander Mark Langston in 1984. That wasn’t close, either, as Dark claimed 25 of the 28 first-place votes.
Harris and Strider figure to be much tighter given the scope of what each as provided for the defending champs.
In slashing .286/.331/.504 with 13 homers, 15 steals and 129 wRC+, Harris has not only impacted the lineup — he’s hit ninth 64 times and helped the Braves to the league’s best average (.281) at that spot — he’s solidified the defense in center field. Meanwhile, Strider’s emergence as a starter — he’s pitched to a 2.95 ERA through 26 games with 15 starts and 151 strikeouts — helped a rotation that has tons of questions in the fifth spot before he locked things down.
The Baseball Writers Association of American voters have been torn before, with the San Diego Padres’ Butch Metzger and Cincinnati Reds’ Pat Zachry splitting the NL ROY in 1976 when they both had 11 of the 24 first-place votes.
Harris’ ability to influence a game on multiple levels may ultimately make the ROY his, but for what he and Strider have both meant to the Braves, the margin of victory figures to be small.
151 strikeouts in 100.2 innings ⛽️— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) August 21, 2022
Spencer Strider's ridiculous rookie season continues. pic.twitter.com/40PeYgDChu
4. Strider chasing down strikeout history
With those aforementioned 151 strikeouts, Strider already has the most of any Braves rookie since Julio Teheran fanned 170 in 2013, and averaging 7.6 per start, he’s on pace for 211. That would be the most of any Brave since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966 and the the first 200-K season since Kid Nichols’ 222 in 1890.
Then-Texas Ranger Yu Darvish was the last rookie to reach the 200-strikeout mark, amassing 221 in 2012, and no one has done it in the NL since the Cubs’ Kerry Wood had 233 in 1998.
Strider already has a leg up on Wood in one regard. With 13.44 strikeouts per nine, he’s currently ahead of Wood’s rookie record of 12.58.
still thinking about Braves’ Michael Harris II making a barehanded catch in centerfield— Farm To Fame (@FarmToFame_) May 30, 2022
5. Harris’ Gold Glove push
No rookie has won a Gold Glove since then-Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado in 2013, and Harris has to be the odds-on favorite to end that drought.
He leads all NL center fielders in Defensive Runs Above Average (5.9) despite having played 279 1/3 fewer innings than the next-closest player, the New York Mets’ Brandon Nimmo (4.1 Def). He also tops all players in the circuit in dWAR (0.8), Defensive Runs Saved (five) and UZR (4.1) and is tied for the most four-star catches (six) and Outs Above Average (six).
Among NL players who have played at least 78 games in center, Harris is joined by the Washington Nationals’ Victor Robles (0.7) and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger (0.6), San Diego Padres’ Trent Grisham (0.6) and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Alek Thomas (0.6) as the only ones with a dWAR of 0.5 or better, and Harris’ Def of 5.9 is just 0.1 behind all of them combined.
Earning that piece of hardware seems a given at this point for Harris.
Daily "Vaughn Grissom is on base" update. pic.twitter.com/bWRr0BATwW— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) August 21, 2022
6. Vaughn Grissom’s red-hot start
Within a week of Grissom’s debut, MLB Pipeline unveiled its updated list of the top 30 prospects in each organization, with the 21-year-old sitting in the top spot. He hasn’t disappointed, even with an 0-for-5 day Wednesday in Pittsburgh dropping his average from .420 to .382 to go with his three home runs, three doubles and 184 wRC+ through 15 games.
That .382 average tied for the second best (with Jose Constanza in 2011) by any Brave in the Expansion Era, trailing only the .413 that Francoeur was hitting at this stage in 2005.
7. What will happen when Albies returns?
To trot out one of manager Brian Snitker’s most-repeated lines, that’s “a good problem to have,” but it’s still one in need of a solution.
Albies is on the road with the team during this road trip through Pittsburgh and St. Louis, and has been on the field taking batting practice. The Braves haven’t set a timetable on his return, but with an expectation of mid-September, it creates some difficult decisions when it comes to getting a Silver Slugger-winner acclimated for the stretch run and postseason, while also keeping a highly-productive bat in the lineup in the form of Grissom.
Grissom could stay at second, allowing Albies to be the designated hitter to put less stress on his surgically-repaired foot, and they could flip-flop roles as well. Trying to use Albies or Grissom at DH makes for a juggling act when it comes to finding at-bats William Contreras, Robbie Grossman and Eddie Rosario outside of their defensive positions, as well as Marcell Ozuna (however he fits or doesn’t into future plans). Don’t expect Grissom to see any time in the outfield this season given that he’s never played the position at the professional level.
With the Sept. 1 roster expansion allowing the addition of two more players (pushing the active to 28), it figures to help avoid any roster crunch that would come with Albies’ return, but the juggling act won’t be any easier.
8. Dylan Lee overshadowed, but still making noise
With the attention Grissom, Harris and Strider have garnered, it’s easy to overlook the work that another fellow rookie Lee has done out of the bullpen.
The elder statesman given he’s 28, while Grissom and Harris are both 21 and Strider is 23, Lee has pitched to a 2.72 ERA in 36 1/3 innings over 32 games with 42 strikeouts to six walks.
Among NL rookie relievers, he has the second best strikeout to walk rate (24.5) is fifth in fWAR (0.8) and FIP (2.73) and ninth in ERA.
While Will Smith is now an Astro and Tyler Matzek is working his way back toward being his dominant 2021 self, Lee — recalled five days before Harris — has across the course of the season been the Braves’ most reliable left-handed reliever not named A.J. Minter.
9. About those rankings
Back in March, MLB.com’s farm system rankings had the Braves 27th and Harris was the only player in the Top 100, coming in 65th.
It was a far cry from 2018 and 2018, when Atlanta had four within the top 100, but they had traded away another player that made that list (catcher Shea Langeliers at No. 59). Yet, here we are with the Braves having used 11 different rookies, headlined by its ROY contenders, and joins the Mariners (Julio Rodriguez and George Kirby) and Twins (Jose Miranda and Joe Ryan) as the only team to have a first-year position player and pitcher in the top 10 in fWAR.
After the arrivals of the likes of Acuña, Albies, William Contreras, Max Fried, Austin Riley, Mike Soroka, those reports about the farm system’s demise are greatly exaggerated.