Hayden Harris was an undrafted free agent signing for the Atlanta Braves in 2022, but now, just more than a year later, could be on the precipice of a big league opportunity.
Harris attended Georgia Southern University and then was signed following the 2022 MLB draft as an undrafted free agent.
Preseason Report Card
Our preseason report card on Hayden Harris was all but non-existent, as undrafted relief pitchers aren’t ones that will typically carry our attention. Harris had a solid sophomore season for the Eagles, but overall spent a lackluster college career primarily in the bullpen. He did strike out 166 batters in 144 1⁄3 innings, but his command was horrible and as a fifth-year senior he walked 23 batters in 28 2⁄3 innings. Where Harris did excel was the MLB Draft League, where despite his control problems persisting, he struck out 17 batters in 9 1⁄3 innings. He turned that into a professional opportunity, but in six FCL appearances he walked six batters over 4 2⁄3 innings, so again there was really nothing to look forward to in 2023.
What we saw in 2023
Harris started the 2023 season as a 24-year-old just getting a taste of Single-A. In his second game, he yielded three earned runs in a loss for Augusta. However despite his 9.72 ERA at the level, which was ballooned by this and a six-run outing, Harris had some impressive numbers, sporting a 2.29 xFIP. He struck out 15 batters in only 8 1⁄3 innings, and as would continue through the next two levels, he was able to cut back on his walks. He spent relatively little time at High-A Rome as well, striking out 41.9 percent of the batters he faced, cutting his walk rate to 6.5 percent, and putting up a 2.49 xFIP. A well-deserved Double-A call up in June landed him where he would spend the bulk of the season, as Harris continued to have success in Mississippi. He ended his season allowing three runs in his final outing, but overall still had a 2.83 ERA, 2.64 FIP, and 3.44 xFIP at Double-A Mississippi while striking out 34.2 percent of the batters he faced. His walk rate finally jumped back up to 11.6 percent, but this was still in the realm of manageable improvement.
1,362 pitchers reached the 50 innings threshold in the minor leagues in 2023. Among those, Harris struck out batters at the 20th highest rate, had the 17th best K-BB%, and ranked 20th with a 3.02 xFIP across his three levels of work. Harris was helped by his age relative to competition, but still, for a player who was basically a complete unknown coming into this season, his performance was astounding. As you might expect, much of Harris’s success came against left-handed batters as he posted an absurd 44.4 percent strikeout rate against them to go along with an 8.6 percent walk rate. Both of those numbers suffered against right-handed batters, sitting at 33.1 percent and 10.2 percent respectively, but he was still plenty effective against them. That split also stayed relatively consistent into Double-A, with him striking out 30.5 percent of right-handed batters and walking 10.5 percent of them.
Overall it was nice to see him make a good transition to Double-A, even with his numbers against left-handed batters suffering a bit. Harris ended his season even later, as he got an opportunity to pitch in the simulated games prior to the Braves’ postseason series.
Harris is unfortunate to find himself in an organization that is hellbent on building extreme reliever depth, otherwise he would likely have at least an outside shot at making the Opening Day roster.
As it is, he should head to Triple-A to start the season with a chance to make enough of an impression to get into the major league bullpen at some point in 2024 as needs arise. He has a unicorn profile, featuring a 90-92 mph fastball with solid spin and excellent extension for his size, and an extreme vertical approach angle that makes the pitch have an apparent velocity of a mid-to-upper 90’s fastball. This, combined with a potential above-average slider is a lethal combination that has succeeded now up to Double-A, but he will continue to face a challenge against right-handed hitters. His low arm angle and that approach angle make it difficult for left handed batters to pick up on his pitches, but right-handers will get a better look and he will need to be more pinpoint with his command against more experienced hitters. He is more of a zone-filler than a spot-hitter, and that can be dangerous. He does occasionally mix in a changeup, but it isn’t good enough to be a serious weapon against right-handed batters yet.
Especially by over-relying on his slider, he tends to run himself into deep counts and sequences of walks, but when he does command the fastball he is the most effective reliever the Braves have in the system. With guys like Harris, often the question is just how far being different can take a player, as offering a unique look is itself an effective skill that can get batters out. If the Braves can find another bump in his command, they could really be looking at a diamond in the rough. Right now, Harris has a good chance to project as a player that can fit as a middle reliever and get in games with lefty-heavy sequences of hitters, and it will be interesting to see if he continues to have enough success against right-handed hitting to justify his usage in wider scenarios.