The Braves' Rookies Are Leading Their Repeat Bid
PHILADELPHIA — Outfielder Michael Harris II or starting pitcher Spencer Strider? Nobody on the Braves can figure out how they’d vote in the two-man National League Rookie of the Year race between Atlanta teammates.
“It’s incredibly difficult,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said, standing just outside the visiting clubhouse in Philadelphia ahead of batting practice last Thursday afternoon. “Because obviously, one (Harris) does it every day, is doing some things that not many other big league guys are. Then obviously, the other, Strider, is doing something that no one’s ever really done. I mean, he’s the first Braves rookie to ever strike out 200 people, he’s got the [Atlanta rookie] record for strikeouts in a game…”
“It’s such a tough one,” Swanson concluded with a smile. “I’m glad I don’t have a vote.”
But notably, there are those who do need to decide these things — and both Harris and Strider have significant cases to make, amid one of the most valuable rookie classes in recent MLB history.
Already in 2022, five rookie hitters — Julio Rodríguez, Harris, Adley Rutschman, Steven Kwan and Jeremy Peña — have eclipsed the 4.0 wins above replacement mark. To put that in perspective, just 18 rookie hitters, total, had been worth at least 4 WAR in a season dating back to 2012. This year’s rookie hitting crop is special.
On the pitching side, Strider was knocking on the door of the four-WAR mark himself (he has 3.9 despite tossing only 131 ⅔ innings) before being sent to the 15-day injured list with a strained oblique on Saturday. The Braves didn’t convert him from the bullpen to the rotation until May 30, at which point manager Brian Snitker said he realized he had not a Craig Kimbrel on his hands, but rather a Tom Seaver.
I asked Snitker to elaborate on when he realized what Strider could be for the Braves.
“Just watching the whole body of work,” Snitker said, sitting in the Atlanta dugout. “Now as the [pitch] assortments come in and changeup and the slider’s gotten better… [How he] repeats his delivery, his work ethic, how he goes about things. He’s very, very impressive.”
Snitker was not ready to declare Strider Rookie of the Year, though.
“He’s just impressed me — and Michael, too,” Snitker said, noting how much Harris had improved since not making the team out of spring training last year. “I didn’t know the arm was like that, that the speed was like that. I damn sure didn’t know the power was like that.”
Harris’s results have been incredible — a .305/.346/.535 batting line entering Monday’s action, with 19 home runs, 19 stolen bases (in 21 attempts), plus a spot among the leaders in defensive runs saved as a center fielder.
Harris said he and Strider like to joke about it — the way they keep pushing each other, running past any reasonable expectations for rookies amid a pennant chase — but he’s not prepared to declare himself (or Strider) the winner, either.
“I don’t really know how to break down those different stats, the comparisons,” Harris said. “But really, he shouldn’t only have one professional season before going out there and doing what he’s doing. I mean, he’s just phenomenal.”
To Harris’s point, the rookies who are tearing up the league for the Braves (and even elsewhere) aren’t very experienced in pro baseball. Strider, selected by Atlanta in the fourth round of the 2020 draft, pitched 94 minor-league innings before reaching MLB, spending 2020 at the Braves’ alternate site during the COVID-19-canceled minor league campaign. Harris was there, too, and had just 196 plate appearances above A-ball when the Braves called him up on May 28.
For reference, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year, Randy Arozarena, collected 1,302 minor league plate appearances, while his NL counterpart, Jonathan India, clocked 711.
Harris and Strider’s teammate, outfielder Robbie Grossman, thinks that might have been an advantage.
“I think we get into some of the COVID stuff when the guys get to go to the alt-site and really get exposed to some higher-level pitching and higher-level baseball,” Grossman said, standing in front of his locker on Thursday. “You really [see how] some of these guys stood out — like a couple of these guys in this room. And they’re here now and they’re making a difference. They’re showing that they’re very good ballplayers.”
Even a longtime former minor league manager like Snitker admitted he’s to change his thinking about when players are ready. For instance, he said he had to process it differently when the Braves called up Vaughn Grissom directly from Double-A, where he’d logged fewer than 100 plate appearances.
“I grew up in a world where you just didn’t do that,” Snitker said. “Guys didn’t come up to the big leagues after a year in the minor leagues. It just didn’t happen. College guy, high school guy, whatever — it just needed, you know, just more development time.”
Snitker still has his doubts that this could be a better way to develop talent. He directly attributes some of his team’s base running gaffes to a lack of minor-league reps, and with that an inexperience in playing games that matter and learning how to respond in real-time situations.
“It’s usually when a guy came up, he had spent three or four years in the minor leagues. Now they’re coming up at [age] 21. And like I say, they lost a year of development, you know, at the alternate sites. So they are getting here quicker without the experience that the guys used to have. You just have to be more patient, and try to use it as a teaching moment.”
Luckily, the Braves are perhaps optimally situated for such a setup, between Snitker’s experience developing ballplayers (witness his 1,302 career minor-league wins) and a wealth of veteran talent who can help mentor rookies. You could see the latter in action last Thursday afternoon, as Swanson worked with Grissom on defensive techniques out on the Philadelphia infield.
Grissom said seeing Strider and Harris’ success up close helped him as well.
“Watching them coming up, and knowing they’re rookies,” Grissom said. “It just makes you feel like it’s the same game. And with how they’re performing, you might as well try and fit in.”
In his own debut campaign, Grissom is doing just that — hitting .290/.351/.435 in his first 151 plate appearances. In another season, he might be in the Rookie of the Year conversation as well. But not this season, and not with rookie teammates like Harris and Strider.
Truly, the only rookie-related thing any of the Braves could agree on is that, despite a strong freshman season from Rutschman, Seattle’s Rodríguez is the AL Rookie of the Year. It’s a fair point, considering he’s already accumulated 5.7 WAR, best among rookies in 2022 and trailing only Mike Trout, Aaron Judge and Jose Abreu among any rookie season since 2012. It probably also didn’t hurt that just a few weeks ago against Atlanta, Rodríguez did this:
“I remember just seeing [Rodríguez] at the All Star Game because I’d heard about him and hadn’t really seen him in person,” Snitker, who managed the National League by virtue of winning the 2021 World Series, said. “And I was like, God, what a monster this kid is. I mean, yeah, he’s going to be a superstar, if he isn’t already. He would be, I would think, not a bad choice [for AL Rookie of the Year].”
But in Snitker’s league, Strider and Harris are in a league of their own. Just don’t ask any of the Braves to pick favorites — they’ll take both, thank you very much.
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