This year’s National League Rookie of the Year voting will be a particularly fun one because the two front-runners happen to be teammates. Braves right-hander Spencer Strider and center fielder Michael Harris II both burst onto the scene in 2022 and both cemented themselves as building blocks in Atlanta. Wins above replacement is far, far from the be-all and end-all in ascertaining player value, but it’s still telling that Strider and Harris are both north of four WAR on the season (per both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs), while no other NL rookie has even three wins above replacement per either version of the metric.
Harris and Strider have both played at an All-Star level this season, though neither actually made the All-Star team this summer. That’s due largely to the fact that Strider began the season in the bullpen and Harris didn’t make his debut until late May. Given their play in 2022, that could change as early as next summer.
There’s still a bit of time for the bottom line to change, although with Strider on the 15-day injured list due to an oblique strain, his regular season is likely over. Harris will have another nine games to build his case, pending any off-days or an untimely injury of his own. Let’s take a quick look at each player’s candidacy.
A Quick Case for Strider
Dominant this season as both a reliever (2.22 ERA in 24 1/3 innings) and a starter (2.77 ERA, 107 1/3 innings), Strider leads all National League rookies with 131 2/3 innings pitched. Cincinnati’s Hunter Greene, a popular ROY pick prior to the season, is a distant second place at 113 2/3 innings. Strider’s gaudy 38.3% strikeout rate isn’t just the best among rookie pitchers in 2022 — it’s the best among all Major League pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings. Shane McClanahan is the only pitcher in Major League Baseball (again, min. 100 innings pitched) who has induced swinging strikes at a higher clip than Strider’s 15.5%.
Strider’s overall numbers — 131 2/3 innings, 2.67 ERA, 38.3% strikeout rate, 8.5% walk rate — are so dominant that if he had a few more innings on his resume, he’d be in the mix for some down-ballot Cy Young votes. (He may still get a handful, but he’s not going to stack up alongside the current leaders.)
A common argument against Strider is that he shouldn’t be favored because he plays less often than an everyday player (e.g. Harris). Firstly, unlike most of even the fringe ROY candidates, Strider broke camp with the Braves this year. He’s been on the roster since Opening Day, which Harris and others can’t claim.
Secondly, Strider has faced 528 batters this season and, were it not for the oblique injury, would’ve pushed that number close to 600. Even that 528 mark is greater than the total number of plate appearances for any National League rookie hitter. Strider (and pitchers in general) may appear in a fewer number of their team’s overall games, but as a pitcher, he has more direct influence on the outcome of every single plate appearance than any of the defenders behind him. On average, he faced 21.7 hitters per start. That’s nearly a week’s worth of plate appearances for a position player.
Put more succinctly, the counter-argument to that common knock on Strider is that hitters play a smaller role in determining the outcome of a large number of their team’s games; pitchers play a larger role in determining the outcome of a small number of their team’s games.
A Quick Case for Harris
In terms of wins above replacement, Harris trails only Julio Rodriguez for the rookie lead, per FanGraphs (4.8), and only Rodriguez and Cleveland’ Steven Kwan, per Baseball-Reference (5.1). He’s a dynamic player in all facets of the game, hitting .305/.346/.535 with 19 home runs and 19 steals apiece. Harris doesn’t walk much (4.7%) and strikes out a bit more than average (23.8%), but that hasn’t stopped him from being 43% better than the average hitter, by measure of wRC+ (or 42%, per OPS+).
Defensively, Harris looks like a future Gold Glover. He might not win one this season, as his cumulative defensive contributions are impacted by the fact that he spent nearly two months in the minors, but every publicly available metric is in agreement that he’s a plus, if not elite defender. In 949 innings of center field work, Harris has received standout marks from Defensive Runs Saved (7), Ultimate Zone Rating (3.9) and Statcast (6 Outs Above Average, 5 Runs Above Average), to name a few. Harris ranks in the 92nd percentile of Statcast’s Outs Above Average, the 87th percentile for his jumps on balls hit to the outfield, and in 94th percentile for pure sprint speed.
It’s true that Strider has more batters faced than Harris has plate appearances, but Harris has fielded far more balls in play in center field than Strider has on the mound. His value as a defensive player is far superior, particularly given his elite results in 2022. Harris also provides baserunning value that Strider doesn’t have the ability (or even the opportunity) to match. Despite appearing in just 106 games so far, Harris ranks 17th among all big leaguers in baserunning runs above average, per FanGraphs’ — a cumulative stat that incorporates more than just his impressive 19-for-21 showing in stolen bases.
There’s really no wrong answer; both players have had sensational starts to their career and both have been absolutely vital pieces of a Braves team that trails the Mets by 1.5 games for the National League East lead. Still, only one of the two is going to take home Rookie of the Year honors in November. Who should it be?