How these two players changed the Braves' season

October 6th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Mark Bowman's Braves Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

If looking for the key stretch of the Braves’ 2022 season, look no further than the final week of May, when president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos promoted Michael Harris II from Double-A Mississippi and manager Brian Snitker transitioned from the bullpen to the starting rotation.

“We’ve talked a lot about the scouting side and they deserve a ton of credit, but for the development side to get those guys ready in limited time, it’s incredible what those guys did,” Anthopoulos said.

Harris and Strider stand as one of the most impactful rookie duos in MLB history. With all due respect to Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel, Harris and Strider have been as influential as any Braves rookie since Chipper Jones in 1996.

Despite being in the Minors for most of this season’s first two months, Harris led all NL rookie position players with a 4.8 fWAR (FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement model). The only rookie in Braves history to record a higher fWAR was Rico Carty (4.9) in 1964. Ronald Acuña Jr. produced a 4.0 fWAR over 111 games when he won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2018.

So, what led the Braves to promote Harris and make him their starting center fielder on May 28?

“We had been talking for a while about when he might be ready and I was taking trips myself to watch him,” Anthopoulos said. “I was calling [assistant general manager of player development Ben Sestanovich] and asking him to talk to his staff about what they thought. Would he survive? Would he struggle?

“When you call guys up, you don’t want to have to send them back down a week or two later after they just fall on their face. We knew the defense would show up.”

While there might have been concerns about whether Harris was properly developed after just 192 games above the high school level, the bar was low. He was replacing Travis Demeritte, who was in the midst of a 1-for-34 skid when the move was made.

The offensive concerns quickly evaporated as Harris moved toward hitting .297 with 19 homers, 20 stolen bases and an .853 OPS. His arrival also transitioned the Braves' outfield from liability to strength. Adam Duvall was moved to left field, Marcell Ozuna saw far less time in the field and pitchers felt more comfortable every time a ball left the infield.

Speaking of pitchers, despite not moving to the rotation until May 30, Strider finished the season leading all MLB rookie pitchers with a 4.9 fWAR (Seattle’s George Kirby ranked second with a 3.0 mark). This is the highest mark recorded by any MLB rookie pitcher since Hideo Nomo (5.2) in 1995. It’s also the best mark produced by any Atlanta rookie pitcher, besting Mike Soroka’s previous record (4.6).

Strider actually moved to the rotation two weeks later than planned. He was scheduled to make his first start on May 17 in Milwaukee. But when Tyler Matzek’s shoulder created more discomfort before that game, the Braves decided they needed to keep Strider in the bullpen until they were again comfortable about the relief corps depth.

Invaluable contributors: It was great to see both Sestanovich and vice president of scouting Dana Brown soaking in the celebration after the Braves clinched a fifth straight NL East title on Tuesday night. Sestanovich has done a great job overseeing the farm system and the contributions he made running the alternate training site during the COVID-shortened 2020 season continue to pay dividends.

As for Brown, his fingerprints are all over this year’s division title. The veteran scout’s very first pick for the Braves in 2019 was Shea Langeliers, who was used to acquire Matt Olson this year. Two rounds after taking Langeliers, Brown took a suburban Atlanta outfielder that many teams viewed as a pitcher. The baseball world will likely soon recognize him as the 2022 NL Rookie of the Year.

After grabbing Langeliers and Harris during the early portion of the 2019 MLB Draft, Brown grabbed Vaughn Grissom in the 11th round. The Braves’ 2020 Draft was highlighted by the fourth-round selection of Strider. The Draft consisted of just five rounds that year, but Atlanta ended up getting two big league starters in Strider and Bryce Elder, who was taken in the fifth round.

“It’s pretty special that we have an organization where scouting can make such an impact,” Brown said. “They’re not afraid to call guys up, even when they’re younger. Being on the road 250 days a year, you get to see the fruits of your labor and celebrate like this. It really is special.”