Opinion: Strider Is Terrific But Harris II Deserves NL Rookie Trophy

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Austin Riley, with author Dan Schlossberg, says no big moment is too much for Michael Harris II.Courtesy of Dan Schlossberg

By Dan Schlossberg

Heading into play Tuesday, Michael Harris II led all qualified rookies in batting average (.311) and OPS (.904), topped NL rookies with 44 extra-base hits, and had 18 homers and 16 stolen bases in 94 games.

He had his first two-homer game in Seattle Sunday, connecting for the second one in the ninth inning with two outs, two strikes, and two men on. Things come better in pairs, as the Braves realize whenever Spencer Strider takes the mound.

Despite a 3-2 loss in San Francisco Monday night, Strider is 10-5 with a 2.72 ERA and ranks sixth in MLB with 192 strikeouts in 125 2/3 innings, the highest whiff rate (13.75 per nine innings) of anyone with more than 60 innings pitched. That includes Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander.

As for Harris, 21, he’s not only the youngest man in the majors but the first Braves player his age or younger to have a multi-homer game since Ronald Acuña, Jr. did it twice in 2018 and 2019.

When Acuña was NL Rookie of the Year in 2018, the Braves thought they’d never see such an impactful rookie again. Little did they know Harris II, then a junior in a high school less than an hour from Truist Park, would prove to be the second coming just four years later.

In many ways, the latest wunderkind is better than the original.

He makes better contact, has more success on the bases, boasts enormous opposite-field power, and has a knack for doing his best work in late-and-close situations. And we haven’t even mentioned his Gold Glove defense — the best the Braves have had in center field since the glory days of Hall of Fame contender Andruw Jones.

Simply put, Harris II is your National League Rookie of the Year for 2022 even if a majority of the voting writers choose Strider, who works once every five days.

Without Harris, promoted May 28 after less than half-a-season in Double-A, the Braves could not have stayed so close to the highly-paid, much-hyped Mets all season. Even with Steve Cohen’s loot behind them, and a payroll roughly $80 million higher than Atlanta’s, the Mets have not been able to shake the younger, less-experienced Braves.

Harris has already been rewarded once, receiving an eight-year, $72 million contract extension, but will likely be rewarded again, since the Braves are virtually certain to reach the post-season again, either as NL East division champs for the fifth straight season or as the top-seeded wild-card team.

After the season, Harris can add to his hard-won hardware with the Rookie of the Year trophy, Gold Glove, and World Series ring — if the Braves become the first National League team since the 1975-76 Reds to win consecutive World Series.

“No moment is too big for him,” said slugging Atlanta third baseman Austin Riley when asked about Harris. “He’s the same guy no matter what. It says a lot about him.”

Manager Brian Snitker agreed. “He doesn’t have a heartbeat when he comes up in big situations,” he said. “He can put a bad at-bat aside and still be very confident when he goes back up there. He’s pretty special.”

When this week started, Harris had a 4.5 WAR from both Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs. For the sake of comparison, Acuna had a 3.9 bWAR when he ran away with Rookie of the Year honors in 2018.

Harris hit five homers in the first 10 games of September and was virtually certain to finish with at least 20 — even though he missed most of the first two months. That’s a shock for Harris followers who realize he had 14 homers in 197 minor-league games.

In addition, he topped all big-leaguers in batting with men in scoring position, going 28-for-70 going into last weekend. No other player with 300 or more plate appearances or at least 65 at-bats with runners in scoring position could match that .400 mark.

With the Braves starting play tonight just one-half game out of first place, Harris is the secret weapon Snitker needs to ignite an offense that suddenly disappeared.

Matt Olson has been dreadful, with Acuña not far behind and Dansby Swanson maintaining his position among the league leaders in strikeouts — not bad for a pitcher but terrible for a shortstop. Riley and once-hot-hitting rookie infielder Vaughn Grissom haven’t done much with the bat lately either.

The team desperately misses the 30-homer, 100-rbi bat of injured second baseman Ozzie Albies, hitting well during a rehab assignment at Triple-A Gwinnett, and could move Grissom to left field, where Eddie Rosario has been marginally better than Marcell Ozuna in recent action.

Since Harris is more likely to get a hit or home run than Acuña, whose wounded knee has sapped his prodigious power, Snitker would be well-served to try this lineup in the critical Philadelphia series:

  1. Harris II, CF
  2. Albies, 2B
  3. Acuña Jr., RF
  4. Riley, 3B
  5. Olson, 1B
  6. Swanson, SS
  7. Contreras, DH
  8. d’Arnaud, C
  9. Grissom, LF

It’s certainly better to shake things up and try to shake the demons that have bedeviled the best batting order in the league, causing four losses in the last five games. It’s also how Acuña became a leadoff man in the first place.

HERE’S THE PITCH weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has been a Braves fan since 1957 and a baseball writer since 1969. The author of 40 books, he covers the game for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, and many others. His e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

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