With the season the Atlanta Braves are having, there isn’t that much spotlight to go around. Ronald Acuña Jr. is rewriting the record book, Matt Olson has an outside shot at 60 home runs, and beyond that Atlanta literally has an above-average starter at every position on the field:
The Atlanta Braves’ Starting Lineup
And because these guys never seem to get hurt or take a day off, there hasn’t been a story about an unsung hero picking up the slack when a star goes down. So Michael Harris II, a 22-year-old center fielder with a plus-plus glove and a 115 wRC+, goes under the radar a little.
Harris arrived in the majors last May, with the Braves 8 1/2 games out of first place and three games under .500. Atlanta finished the season on a 79-36 run, culminating in a division title.
“I guess it brought out the competitor in me,” Harris says. “When we were down in the division and making a push back, we weren’t really worried about it. We got on a roll and brought the deficit down a little bit, then at the end of the year we had a big series against the Mets to secure the [division]. It was pretty fun.”
The Braves are currently 96-60, having clinched another division title last night. In Harris’ big league career, his team has played at a 111-win pace when he’s in the lineup. He knows nothing other than life as a cog in an unbreakable machine.
If there’s a weakness in Harris’ game, it’s his walk rate (5.3% this year, 5.0% for his career). A .335 OBP would be good enough to lead off in a lot of places, but not in Atlanta, so Harris has made about two-thirds of his starts this season from the ninth spot in the order. And he’s been the best nine-hole hitter in the league:
The Best No. 9 Hitters in Baseball
min. 150 PA in the nine-hole
It gets better. See, Harris has been so good this year — and was so good last year, when he also spent a big chunk of time in the ninth spot in the order — that he’s one of the best nine-hole hitters of the past 30 years. Sorting the best nine-hole seasons of the Wild Card era by wRC+, Harris shows up twice in the first 13 spots on the list.
All of Harris’ production comes courtesy of the same slightly unorthodox swing that won him him the Rookie of the Year award in 2022. At 6-foot, 195 pounds, Harris is an explosive athlete but not necessarily an imposing one. Some batters have an easy, simple swing that almost leaves onlookers mystified as to where the power comes from. Not Harris.
Harris starts with his hands almost at his belt, which is a bit unusual.
“Yeah, I used to have my hands up above my head, which caused me to wrap my bat around and be late, roll over,” he says. When he got to the majors, Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, “got me in a good position to do what I’m doing now: putting the ball in the air, and hitting the ball hard and being on time for every pitch.”
His swing starts with a leg kick that can vary in size based on the incoming pitch.
“In high school and growing up, I used to be a toe tap guy,” Harris says. “Two or three years ago, I started doing a leg kick. It’s a timing thing, trying to be on time with it, and I guess I have a little more power with it.”
Most hitters who make a change like that remember an inciting incident, a piece of advice from a coach or a teammate, or a moment everything clicked — just like Harris changing his hand position. So I was interested to hear what inspired Harris to ditch the toe tap and go with a leg kick.
“I still have no idea,” he says. “It felt good, and I was successful with it, so I just kept doing what works.”
Comparing Harris’ numbers from this year to last reveals an interesting tension. His batting average and OBP are almost identical, but he’s down about 40 points of slugging percentage, and with it 22 points of wRC+. That gives the impression of a noticeable sophomore slump, though most sophomores wish they could slump as Harris has:
MLB’s Under-23 Center Fielders
|Michael Harris II||472||5.3%||18.4%||.294||.335||.474||.345||.357||115||3.4||12.3||7.1||3.5|
|Ji Hwan Bae||322||7.5%||23.6%||.244||.304||.326||.281||.270||71||3.3||-8.2||-1.9||0.1|
min. 100 PA
There are two underlying numbers that indicate Harris might have undergone an approach change from 2022 to 2023: First, his strikeout rate dropped from 24.3% as a rookie to 18.4% as a sophomore. Second, he’s hitting the ball in the air more: His average launch angle has increased to 7.1 degrees in 2023, up from 4.5. His groundball-to-fly ball ratio has dropped from 2.07 to 1.62, and he’s hitting more line drives than last year.
Harris doesn’t view this as an approach change so much as a refinement based on an extra year’s experience: “Pitch selection, and then making the right swing,” he says. “I don’t think I’m physically trying to hit the ball in the air, I’m trying to hit line drives. But I guess if I catch it in the right spot, some go up and some go down. I guess I’ve got a better clip of them going up in the air this year.”
The results haven’t been quite as good, but if anything Harris’ underlying numbers are considerably better:
Sophomore Slump, or…
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
So Harris is striking out less and making better contact than he did in 2022, when he was Rookie of the Year. But he’s like the sixth- or seventh-best hitter on the Braves, and his results have regressed, so the improved process doesn’t stand out as much as it would otherwise. As if opposing pitchers didn’t have enough trouble with the top of Atlanta’s lineup, they’ve got to deal with this guy at the bottom.