ATLANTA — At about the time it became apparent that Ronald Acuña Jr. would be brought to the majors during the 2018 season, some Braves veterans discussed the importance of making him and other rookies feel at home in the clubhouse. Of doing away entirely with an already fading practice in pro sports of making rookies feel like they were subservient and had to walk around on eggshells.
Their reasoning was that since the Braves were going to need talented youngsters like Acuña to be at their best if the team hoped to reach its goals, why make them feel uncomfortable on or off the field and have them focused on anything other than being themselves and playing ball to the best of their abilities?
It’s an approach that’s paid dividends for the Braves during a run of four consecutive division titles and last year’s World Series championship.
And now, even as other teams have adopted a similar attitude and no longer treat rookies as second-class citizens, the Braves seem to do it a little better than most, judging not only from the stunning performance of three Atlanta rookies — NL Rookie of the Year candidates Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider, and recent call-up Vaughn Grissom — but also how they comport themselves.
That is with cool confidence and, in some cases, varying degrees of swagger. With plenty of candor and some outspokenness. With colorful, engaging and sometimes quirky personalities shining through.
And also with senses of humor that might have gone unnoticed for a year or two back in the day, when rookies were seen more than heard from, but now help fill the clubhouse with laughter and good-natured razzing.
The latter has been especially true, veteran catcher Travis d’Arnaud said, with Grissom, who hit his third homer in his 11th major-league game Saturday, an 11-inning win against Houston, and then had two of the Braves’ seven hits, including a double, in Sunday’s 5-4 loss.
It was only the second loss for the Braves since Grissom, a natural shortstop and their top-rated prospect, was brought directly from Double A to the majors Aug. 10 to fill in at an injury-depleted second base position.
“He’s bringing a lot of people energy and laughs,” d’Arnaud said of Grissom, a lanky Florida native with matinee-idol looks and a mischievous smile. “I don’t know if he does it intentionally sometimes, but he gets everybody to laugh super hard the whole day, from the time when he walks in till he leaves. So he’s fit right in here.”
Grissom, 21, is the third-youngest player in the majors and had only 22 games of experience above the High-A level when he was called up to the majors. But he’s hitting .395 (17-for-43) with three doubles, three home runs, nine RBIs, 12 runs, a .447 OBP and .674 slugging percentage in 12 games for Atlanta, giving him an 1.121 OPS to go with seven multi-hit games already.
“I just try to keep it loose around here. I just try to be myself,” Grissom said with a smile when told of d’Arnaud’s comments about his sense of humor. “These guys have really taken care of me and put me under their wing. I’m just blessed to be around these guys. They’ve made me very comfortable. I mean, they’re like young veterans, so I can ask them whatever I want, and they give me a straight answer.”
Vaughn Grissom has homered in every big-league park he’s ever played in.
— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) August 21, 2022
Grissom’s locker is next to his friend Harris’ locker, which is next to Strider’s, which is beside catcher William Contreras’. And though Contreras is no longer a rookie, he’s close enough that Strider said they call their little corner of the clubhouse “Rookie Row.”
But it’s only about 10 feet away from a line of lockers occupied by veterans including first baseman Matt Olson and d’Arnaud, and Grissom is at least as likely to be joking around loudly with those guys and others nearby than he is with his quiet friend, Harris.
Strider, too, has become a big personality in the clubhouse in his own way, with a dry sense of humor and sharp wit that entertained a tight-knit group of relievers when he was in the bullpen earlier. He’s as regimented as anyone on the team, with a strict stretching and conditioning routine, but Strider is also hilarious, and his throwback mustache, vegan diet and the peace sign on his neck chain provide an inkling of both his charisma and independent thinking.
The fact that all of it has gone over so well from the day Strider arrived in the majors is another indication of how the Braves embrace different personalities, regardless of whether it’s a 15-year veteran or a kid just up from the minors. Just be a good teammate and do everything you can to help the team win, and this is a clubhouse where you will be made to feel at home.
“It sounds like the big leagues used to be, like, when you’re young, you keep your mouth shut, keep your head down,” Strider said. “There’s definitely something to that in a certain amount, but I think that you need guys to feel like they can be who they are. People say stupid stuff, like I have. They make mistakes. But part of that is, I think failure is the best teacher, whether it’s on the field or off the field. So guys can’t fail in ways that they’ll learn from unless they’re able to just be open and be who they are.
“I think this organization, from my experience, is pretty good about letting guys let their personalities come through and just embracing everybody for who they are. Especially on the pitching side, we have a pretty diverse personality (group) going on. If everybody was trying to conform to something that they thought they needed to be, then that wouldn’t work in a lot of ways.”
Veteran reliever Collin McHugh, 35, said the treatment of rookies has softened some in recent years as Major League Baseball skewed younger and more rookies became impact performers. That the Braves’ rookies feel so comfortable and have played so well is how this whole dynamic ideally plays out, he said.
“That’s the goal,” said McHugh, who also cited other Braves rookies including reliever Dylan Lee. “Obviously their talent kind of takes care of the stuff on the field. And I think as a team and as an organization, it makes the most sense and it’s our responsibility to make sure that they have as quick of a transition to the big leagues as possible. Because like we’ve said, and like we’ve seen, they’re going to have to play big roles right off the bat.
“Really good teams that I’ve been on and really good teams that we’ve seen around the league, usually have big contributions from young players. So the less steep that learning curve is, the better it ends up being for everybody. And these guys have kind of taken the banner and run with it quickly.”
Harris is 21 and the youngest player in the majors — he and Grissom are two of the three youngest, with Tampa Bay’s Wander Franco between them — and his early career has been so sensational that he was signed to an eight-year, $72 million contract extension last week.
An Atlanta-area native who grew up pulling hard for the Braves, Harris got that contract after only 71 games in the majors. He’s been that good to warrant it, batting .283 with 31 extra-base hits (12 home runs), 41 RBIs, 15 stolen bases (without being caught) and an .814 OPS in 76 games, all while playing such spectacular center-field defense. He has a legitimate shot at winning a Gold Glove as a rookie.
“I mean, it’s crazy how good he is,” said Olson, who hit his 26th home run Sunday and is tied for fourth in the NL with 83 RBIs. “I don’t want to misspeak here, but (Harris) is probably the best young player that I’ve seen play. Being 21, coming straight up from Double A and to handle himself the way he has.
“Those three guys — Grissom, Harris, Strider — they’ve done an incredible job, and Mike is so even-keel. And, man, he’s electric out there.”
Grissom was a teammate of Harris last season at High-A Rome, after Grissom was promoted from Low-A Augusta during the summer. This year, Harris was promoted from Double-A Mississippi to the majors on May 28, about 1 1/2 months before Grissom was bumped from Rome to Mississippi.
They’re teammates again now, a year after riding buses together in High A. Now they’re flying first class, staying in five-star hotels and surpassing all expectations with their performances on the field. As is Strider, who has a 2.95 ERA and a stunning strikeout rate of 13.5 per nine innings pitched.
“I’m most impressed with how high of a baseball IQ they have at such a young age,” d’Arnaud said of the rookie trio. “And in such big games and big moments. The game doesn’t really seem to speed up on them, which is very rare from a young kid. I’m glad they’re on our side and I don’t have to game plan against them or play against them.”
In the late innings of close games, Grissom is 4-for-4 with a double and two walks since he got to the big leagues, and Harris has been one of the majors’ best hitters in those situations since his arrival nearly three months ago. He’s hit .394 (13-for-33) with three doubles, four homers and a 1.277 OPS in late-and-close situations, the highest OPS in the majors among hitters with at least 25 at-bats in those spots.
“Him and Vaughn both, for being the two younger guys, they like that situation,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Both of them have got kind of a slow heartbeat and stay in the moment. I mean, the thing I’ve seen about Michael is, he can have a rough night, but as long as he’s got a strike left, he’s got a chance. He’s got a great disposition in the way he approaches this game, that’s for sure.”
When Harris was asked about Snitker’s frequent comment regarding his heartbeat under pressure, he smiled and said, “I definitely love to live up to those moments late in the game, where I need to do my job or execute certain pitches, certain situations. I definitely live up to those moments, and I love them.”
Strider’s strikeout rate leads all major-leaguers who’ve pitched at least 50 innings and would be the highest ever by an MLB rookie and the highest by any pitcher in Braves franchise history with a minimum of 100 innings. In the clubhouse, the Braves joke with Strider about his massive thighs — he looks like he’s been doing squats since age 3 — and about his mustache.
He loves it. Not that any team wouldn’t have gladly welcomed Strider and his 101 mph fastball to the clubhouse, but there might not have been many where he would have fit in so well both on and off the field, and so soon, as he has with the Braves.
“I think one thing that the Braves for the last 30 years have been good at is talent evaluation,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “You’ve seen a lot of homegrown players or people that they find that have been able to succeed, or people they get via trade at a younger age. So I’ll give you a lot of credit just for that, like in terms of the talent part. The personality part is an interesting piece, because you always battle, like, the old school — whip them into shape a certain type of way — and the new school — just let them do whatever they want.
“So it’s a delicate balance of helping younger players understand expectations and standards and how to be able to use their personality to (help them thrive). As long as your actions align with what it is we’re trying to do here, and that’s obviously win championships, then that’s fine. But as soon as your actions aren’t aligned with that goal, then that’s when the learning experience comes in.
“It’s like, if you’re representing this place and how it’s supposed to be represented, and what it is that we value here, then that’s what we’re going for.”
(Photo of Michael Harris (left) and Vaughn Grissom (right): Brett Davis / USA Today)