Ten rounds into the 40-round 2019 MLB draft, Braves scouting director Dana Brown, searching for a winning lottery ticket, placed a phone call to a high school shortstop. Brown wanted a read on whether the prospect intended to bypass pro ball to play in college. During their conversation, Brown described the unusual play that had stuck with him since his scouting session.
The kid was in the batter’s box, Brown recounted to him, and fouled a fastball straight backward, off a support pole. The ricochet bounced right back to him, and he caught it on the fly and flipped it back to the pitcher. Brown loved all that this conveyed about the high schooler: the physical skills; the energy ooze, to be completely locked in and tracking the ball even after his swing; his competitiveness, to effectively challenge the pitcher to throw the same pitch again.
About 20 minutes into their chat, the teenager told Brown, “If you guys take me, I’ll sign.” And so the Braves chose Vaughn Grissom with their 11th-round pick, starting him on a path that has led to the big leagues earlier this month. In his first 15 games, Grissom is batting .382 with a .424 on-base percentage and a .600 slugging percentage. In most seasons, he’d be an intriguing late entry into the Rookie of the Year discussion, but the Braves are already fielding the runaway front-runners for that award, pitcher Spencer Strider and center fielder Michael Harris II — two other high-ceiling talents plucked by Brown and his staff well after the first round.
The newcomers have helped to make the Braves a serious threat to become the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to repeat as World Series champions. Atlanta’s run to last year’s title — crushing great teams, winning 11 of 16 games against the Brewers, Dodgers and Astros — was a surprise. Since then, the squad has only gotten better. Ronald Acuña Jr. has recovered from an ACL injury, and the trio of rookies drafted by Brown has immediately impacted the big leagues. Since June 1, the Braves have won 55 of 76 games and made up most of the double-digit deficit that the Mets had constructed for Atlanta in the National League East.
The Braves were thoroughly outplayed by the Mets earlier this month, losing four of five games at Citi Field, but they have gone 14-2 since, averaging 6.2 runs per game. One evaluator posited that the failure in that series might have been the best thing that could have happened to the Braves, like an early-round pop on the chin that stuns a championship boxer into a higher focus. “They’re capable of being really good, but it was a reminder that they can’t take it for granted,” said the evaluator. “They’re going to have to beat some great teams if they want to get back” to the World Series.
The recent surge coincides with Grissom’s promotion from Class AA, and he has continued to play with the high adrenaline, competitive joy and high contact rate that Brown saw in him as a prep star. In his third big league game, Grissom blasted a no-doubter home run off Darwinzon Hernandez over Fenway Park’s Green Monster, pausing at the plate and flipping his bat before starting his journey around the bases. “I didn’t feel a thing,” he said in his first interview after that game, failing badly in his effort to suppress a smile. “I blacked out until I saw my first-base coach, and then I started laughing.”
On Aug. 18, Grissom was at first base in the seventh inning when Harris hit a ball to short center field, and as Grissom chewed up the 90 feet between bases with long strides, third-base coach Ron Washington waved him home; with a headlong dive, he touched the plate, the decisive run at the end of the counterpunch series against the Mets. Grissom also got some attention for his words in an interview with MLB.com, in which he said he remembered his concern before he was drafted in 2019. “I thought I was going to be a Met, which would have been terrible,” Grissom said.
There were two concerns about Grissom as that draft began, Brown recalled. The first was about whether someone so tall and rangy would find a natural position; at 6-foot-3, he is taller than most shortstops. But Grissom consistently made contact and he hit for power, which, for the Braves, mitigated questions about where he would land. The second question was about whether Grissom would opt for college over pro ball; he was committed to play at Florida Atlantic. This is likely why he was not among the 317 players selected in the first 10 rounds in 2019 and why he was still available when Brown called him before the 11th round to ascertain whether Grissom would be a worthwhile investment. Grissom was true to his word, signed for $350,000 — slightly over the money allotted to that slot in the draft. On the day he was promoted to the big leagues, Alex Anthopoulos, the head of baseball operations for the Braves, recounted to Brown words from his scouting reports before the ’19 draft: “I’ll be sick if I don’t get this guy.”
Anthopoulos trusts Brown’s moments of conviction, a relationship built from their many years working together. Brown was the scouting director with the Montreal Expos, hired by Omar Minaya, when he first met Anthopoulos, and he was struck by Anthopoulos’ enthusiasm, his knowledge of statistics and players. Brown told Minaya he needed to hire the Montreal-born Anthopoulos, who became the Expos’ scouting coordinator. Late at night, he would call Brown constantly to talk about players, to the degree that Casandra Brown, Dana’s wife, once remarked: “We need to find him a girlfriend.”
Anthopoulos later worked alongside Brown in the Blue Jays’ organization, and after Anthopoulos took over the Braves in November 2017, he hired Brown — believing in Brown’s vision of players, but also the humility in his work in a field that can be maddeningly inexact. Every scout will miss on players, as Brown immediately learned as an area scout watching Double-A teams. Brown remembers seeing a young lefty named Cliff Lee and not really recognizing the traits that would later help him become a Cy Young winner; he saw Brett Gardner as a minor leaguer and didn’t foresee an impactful major league career. “I didn’t see the crazy energy, the power,” Brown recalls. “You have to be relentless about [evaluating] your evaluations.” He has told younger scouts, “If you judge yourself, you won’t be judged.”
Earlier in the same day on which Brown made the call to Grissom, the Braves had picked Harris in the third round. There had been a lot of questions about whether Harris, a Georgia high schooler, should be picked as a pitcher because of his powerful throwing arm. Brown liked Harris’ potential on the mound — he was a left-hander with a fastball in the low 90s — but what jumped out to Brown was the fact that Harris seemed so intent on being a hitter. When Harris was in the outfield, hit and ran the bases, the energy that Brown saw was tangible; he can remember Harris smashing a triple and launching himself into a slide at third base. Harris had played on summer teams only after coaches agreed to use him in the outfield, and when the Braves invited Harris to Truist Park for a pre-draft workout, he filled the seats in right field and right-center with baseballs. In a conversation with Harris that day, he told the Braves’ staffers flatly: “I am a hitter.”
Selected with the 98th overall pick, Harris reached the big leagues in late May of this year, at age 21, and he’s hitting .286, with 18 doubles, two triples, 13 home runs and 15 steals in 15 attempts. Braves ace Max Fried said on Sunday Night Baseball earlier this year that Atlanta’s June turnaround really started when Harris was installed as the center fielder, after which the outfield defense dramatically improved.
The 2020 draft was greatly complicated by the onset of COVID-19, with swaths of high school and college seasons canceled; the draft was reduced to five rounds. Even so, Brown had seen enough of a Clemson pitcher the previous season to be intrigued, so much so that he told Anthopoulos he was going to find a way to take right-hander Spencer Strider.
He was recovering from Tommy John surgery, but what stuck with Brown was Strider’s physical skills, the bounce in his movements, in his feet. In one game, Brown saw a chopper hit in front of him, and Strider had pounced off the mound. Strider’s fastball was in the mid-90s, and the Braves’ analytic department highlighted the way his fastball played against hitters, riding high, at the top of the strike zone. Going into the fourth round, the Braves debated about whether to take Strider or another pitcher, University of Texas pitcher Bryce Elder. The Braves selected Strider at pick No. 126 — as it turned out, they’d get Elder in the fifth round — and Strider was among the first players to reach the majors from the 2020 draft.
What Brown nor the Braves’ staff anticipated, Brown said, was how Strider’s fastball velocity has increased, to 100-101 mph. Of the 405 batters he has faced this season, Strider has struck out 151 — good for 37.2%, a staggering rate for a starting pitcher. He has a 2.95 ERA, with just six homers allowed in 100⅔ innings. “He’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him, and more,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters earlier this year. “I mean, I’ve been so impressed with this young man.”
This is a constant rookie refrain for the 2022 Braves, a team that was already loaded with a bunch of young stars, because of a remarkable series of decisions by Brown and his staff.
“Significant would be the word I would use,” Anthopoulos said. “That might not be a strong enough word, though.”