Braves’ Michael Harris says he can top debut season. I believe him.

Braves center fielder Michael Harris smiles after batting practice during spring training at CoolToday Park in North Port, Florida. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Braves center fielder Michael Harris smiles after batting practice during spring training at CoolToday Park in North Port, Florida. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

NORTH PORT, Fla. — Michael Harris broke the part of my brain that tries to ignore small sample sizes in baseball.

I kept waiting for his performance to regress during his rookie season with the Braves. It never happened. Now I keep looking for reasons why Harris can’t do better in Year 2. I’m not finding many.

Harris won the NL Rookie of the Year but said it was just a “decent” season for him. That fits with his self-deprecating nature during interviews. When Harris acknowledges that he’s done well, it’s usually softened with “I guess” beforehand.

The truth is that few MLB players had better results at such a young age. Harris made his debut at 21 years old and hit .290 with a .342 on-base percentage and 19 home runs over 441 plate appearances. He stole 20 bases in 21 attempts and played well in center field.

It was a great first season for Harris, but I understand why he believes he can do better. He put up good numbers despite chasing a lot of pitches outside of the zone, striking out often and rarely drawing walks. Talented players typically get better at those things with experience.

“I’ve just got to do what I know I can do,” Harris said Wednesday at the Braves’ spring training facility. “I can’t really try to force anything. I’ve got to just be me and go out and play my game, and whatever happens, happens.

“It’s a game of failure. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t.”

There was some good luck involved in Harris’ rookie season. Harris had a .361 batting average on balls in play. Few players can sustain that over a long time. Mike Trout, one of the game’s better hitters, has a career .347 BAPIP.

Also, the batted-ball profile that Harris produced in 2022 usually doesn’t result in so many hits. His percentage of ground balls (57%) was much higher than the MLB average (42.9%). Line drives and fly balls go for hits much more often than ground balls and are the reliable ways of generating extra-base hits.

If Harris pounds pitches into the ground at a high rate again in 2023, then it’s likely that fewer of them will find holes. But even if there’s regression there, I believe Harris can offset it with better plate discipline and more success against lefties. Harris had one of the worst “chase rates” (swings at pitches outside of the zone) and hit .238 with a .284 OBP in 135 plate appearances versus left-handers.

“I know I can do better than that,” Harris said.

The history of young players with his profile suggests that Harris has a good chance to be a star for multiple seasons and great odds of being a good major leaguer.

Harris compiled 5.3 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com) in 2022. Only 11 players aged 21 or younger produced a higher WAR during their debut season (400 plate appearances or more). Four of them are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame: Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan and Stan Musial. Another player on the list, Albert Pujols, retired in October and likely be in the Hall one day.

Harris has an edge in value over most of the 11 other players who had better rookie seasons at such a young age because he plays center field, like Trout. Morgan was a second baseman, and Donie Bush played shortstop in the early 20th century. The other eight players manned positions with less defensive value.

The tracking data and the eyes both agreed that Harris was excellent in the field and on the basepaths in 2022. Harris surely will be good in those areas for a long time, even if he never hits like he did as a rookie. That high floor is why the Braves took the calculated risk of signing Harris to an eight-year, $72 million contract after he had made only 268 plate appearances in the majors.

The Braves promoted Harris after he had only 196 PAs in the minors, with zero at Triple-A. He was greener than most MLB rookies and still had one of the best debut seasons in MLB history.

“I thought at least I would have went through Triple-A before getting called up,” Harris said. “They said, ‘Scratch it, send him up and let’s see what he’s got.’ I feel like that’s really the best way to know if somebody is ready for the league is to put them in the league.”

Even some players who turn out to be good major leaguers get overmatched early in their careers. Baseball is a hard game to figure out at the highest level. Talented prospects such as Harris, a third-round pick, often discover that it’s a struggle to be consistent when so many of the players they face are just as good.

That didn’t happen with Harris.

“I always told myself when my name is called that I was going to do whatever it takes to make the adjustment and do whatever it takes to stay there as long as I can,” Harris said. “I guess I did a good job of that, and I’m still trying to make adjustments to do better this year.”

Everything happened so fast for Harris. One day he was in Double-A hoping for a promotion to Gwinnett. Then suddenly he was the starting center fielder for the Braves. Soon, Harris was signing the contract extension and winning NL Rookie of the Year. Weeks later he was being celebrated as a hometown hero in Henry County.

Harris said he was surprised to get the call-up so soon but expected to be successful once he made it to the majors.

“I was just going day by day and playing the game,” Harris said Wednesday. “I guess we started rolling, started winning, then playoffs came around and, after that, Rookie of the Year. So, yeah, it was just quick because everything happened faster than I expected.

“I guess I handled it well. I didn’t get to really understand what kind of season I had until after it was over.”

It was a historically good season for a young player. Harris said he can do better in Year 2, and despite my struggles to get my mind around small sample sizes, I believe him.

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