Michael Harris II was called up straight from Double-A in 2022 and became essentially an instant star at the major league level, earning the NL Rookie of the Year award in the process. In 2023, his production dropped off but he actually showed substantial development as a hitter at age 22.
Michael Harris II was the Braves’ third round pick in the 2019 amateur draft. He took a slightly underslot deal to join the Braves as a position player prospect instead of a pitching prospect, though at the time it was thought that most teams were interested in him as a pitcher. This bet on himself paid off big for both him and the Braves, as he flew through the minors and quickly established himself as a star in the big leagues in his age-21 season. He signed a $72 million extension after playing less than half a season in his rookie year to keep him in Atlanta for at least eight seasons, with team options for a ninth and tenth for $15 and $20 million, respectively.
What were the expectations?
After a stellar rookie year, Harris was expected to continue to perform at a star level, providing his signature Gold Glove-caliber center field defense, along with above average production at the plate and good baserunning. While his batted ball profile indicated a not insignificant bit of regression at the plate from his rookie season, given that he outhit his above-average xwOBA by .033, he looked easily good enough to be a highly productive player.
ZiPS’ point estimate for Harris heading into 2023 was 4.4 WAR in 618 PAs, with a .339 wOBA. Chalk another one up for ZiPS, I guess.
In the end, Harris’ 2023 was similar to his 2022. He had a lot less luck (and honestly, having a .030+ xwOBA overperformance twice in a row is hard to do), but actually improved fundamentally in a number of ways.
In 2022, Harris had a .368 wOBA on a .335 wOBA, giving him a sterling 137 wRC+ and 4.9 fWAR. In 2023, Harris had a .345 wOBA on a .357 xwOBA, meaning his wRC+ fell off to “just” 115 despite the xwOBA gain. He finished with 4.0 fWAR in 539 PAs, which was almost identical to the ZiPS point estimate projection on a rate basis.
Defensively, Harris once again played more-than-above-average center field defense. While he didn’t hit the “ridiculous” tear of OAA (see Myles Straw) in 2022 nor in 2023 (see Brenton Doyle), he was a top five-ish center fielder who added substantial value with both his range and his arm in both years.
Despite missing part of the year, Harris finished in the top 45 in position player fWAR in 2023, which... yeah, he’s a good one. A great one, even.
What went right?
After the brutal start to his season (see below), Harris ended up looking like a better hitter than in his rookie year. While his performance was often overshadowed by the crazy seasons his teammates were having, plus the collective clout of the lineup as a whole, he made substantial, impressive gains in areas that were a concern for him in his rookie season.
For one, he cut his strikeout rate without reducing his walk rate at all. He did this while reducing his z-contact, largely by spiking his o-contact. For many players, increases in o-contact are a mixed bag at best, because ending your PA by hitting a bad pitch not particularly well is not great, and is only good if it avoids what otherwise would’ve been a strikeout on that same pitch. But Harris went from well below average o-contact to well above average o-contact, while improving his exit velocity and hard-hit rate, and with no change to his barrel rate.
For another, Harris made a dramatic turnaround in fixing what was probably the biggest concern about him going forward from his rookie season: hitting lefties. In 2022, if not for his defense, Harris looked like a to-be-platooned bat, with a .226 xwOBA against left-handers. In 2023, with the benefit of just one offseason and whatever in-season adjustments he made, his xwOBA against lefties shot up to .336, a more-than-solid mark when lacking the platoon advantage.
In addition to these things, he substantially improved his performance against breaking pitches (especially from lefties), while continuing to hit other types of pitches very well. In brief, he went from a raw, talented bat with plenty of identifiable issues, to pretty much a fantastic all-arounder, all before turning 23.
Some of this can be attributed to an adjustment that he and the Braves made to get him more within the confines of a “normal” plate approach. In 2022, Harris liked to fall over the plate and generate tons of oomph on pitches middle-to-away, and had few issues punishing pitches up and away from him where he could extend his swing. In 2023, there was a re-focusing on capturing part of the inner third. While Harris gave up some of his gaudy production on the outer third as a result, it let him destroy lefties that tried to come inside on him, and seems to have paid off overall. While the heat maps below suggest he lost something against righties while doing so, which he did, the gain against lefties was worth it.
Arguably Harris’ most-fun game of the year came on June 7, against the Mets. He had a bunt single (yes, a bunt single) that ended up becoming a double due to an error early, had a game-tying double off Max Scherzer in the sixth and then scored the go-ahead run later in the inning, and then with the game knotted again in the eighth, knocked a game-winning two-run homer off Adam Ottavino. Oh, and he had a run-of-the-mill-for-him-but-amazing-otherwise catch in center to take away extra bases in a tie game before his homer, too. What a guy.
What went wrong?
It’s funny in retrospect, but kind of like Marcell Ozuna, Harris started his 2023 looking like it was going to be a disaster for him. After dealing with back issues in Spring Training, he posted a 49 wRC+ (.294 xwOBA) in a few games in April and then went on the Injured List. Harris looked good for about two weeks after returning (.384 xwOBA, .340 wOBA), but then fell apart again in the two weeks after (.249 xwOBA). As a result, his line through May 31 featured a .249 wOBA and .299 xwOBA, and it looked like there may be a sophomore slump or something similar in store for him in 2023. It was hard to point to any one issue early on, as he hit too many grounders in his few April games and then lost oomph in the latter half of May.
But then, Harris went nuclear in June and also mashed in August and September, so pretty much everyone deservedly forgot about his poor start.
Throughout the season, Harris didn’t really have too many brutal games, which is a testament to his general consistency. He had a bad game in Cleveland on July 4, that involved an o-fer with a double play hit into late while down by one, but that’s really the worst. He was also the guy that struck out against former Brave Drew Smyly, on three straight curves, all in the dirt, right before Sean Murphy had that wild game-winning routine fly ball that was dropped by Seiya Suzuki in right field, which was his worst WPA play of the year but ended up turning into gold for the Braves in hilarious fashion.
ZiPS projects Harris to roughly repeat his 2023 season in 2024, with premium defense and an above average, if not spectacular bat (110 OPS+), good for roughly 3.5-4 fWAR. It’s actually not clear why ZiPS is now projecting Harris to take a step back after his improvements, considering what it projected for him in 2023 coming off his 2022, but there may be aspects of his outputs relative to his inputs that ZiPS is weighing more heavily than just a straight look at xwOBA. Steamer has him as hitting akin to his xwOBA from his past year and therefore a 4-5 WAR guy, which may make more sense at first glance given all of his adjustments, but that’s why they play the games. Plus, his age means there’s no reason to expect a decline in defense or baserunning at this point.
Basically, Michael Harris II’s projection depends on whether one expects his offense to be moderately above average or well above average. That range of relatively likely offensive outcomes along with his relatively stable projection of elite defense and baserunning is good for somewhere from a very valuable player in the 3.5 WAR range to a star level player closer to 5 WAR in 2024. If he can take another step at the plate towards a 130 wRC+ (which isn’t at all inconceivable for the talented still-22 year old) with his defense and baserunning, he could finish top 10 in MVP voting and become one of the best players in the game. He was 11th in position player fWAR in MLB from the beginning of June in 2023, with a 136 wRC+, as an example of a realistic high-end outcome.
Harris should be a very good player for Atlanta in 2024 and well beyond, but the upside remains there for him to become truly one of the game’s top players.