He had an OPS of .659 at the end of April, but going into the weekend series with Kansas City, rookie Gunnar Henderson’s OPS was up to .732, which put him five percent above the league average OPS for the year. He has certainly made positive strides on offense in recent weeks with an OPS of .790 since May 1 as this weekend began.
Henderson recently made a choice to, in a sense, expand his zone a bit and be more aggressive at times early in the count. Even against a non-strike. It worked for him Thursday at Milwaukee when he got a pitch up in the zone in the eighth-inning off Brewers reliever Peter Strzelecki. It was a fastball that was just out of the strike zone on the first pitch and soon after that ball was just out of the ballpark. A huge go-ahead two-run homer to left he hit 98 mph off the bat.
The blast in Milwaukee was his second go-ahead homer in the seventh inning or later on the road trip.
“Yeah, there are times when I’ve been too passive,” Henderson told me during the road trip. “Just, I’ve had times recently where I’ve been starting to swing earlier in counts if it’s in the area that I want to go and do damage with. That has helped me and if you get contact earlier in the counts, you also limit strikeouts. A big thing has been learning how to be aggressive, but not too aggressive.”
“Definitely boosting it (my confidence) and glad to help the team in that situation. Looking forward to getting everything rolling again.
“It definitely (a late homer) has a bit more weight added to it. Every game matters so much and you get to the end of the season and one game ahead or behind can really matter.”
If hitting game-winning home runs were not enough of a confidence boost for the still 21-year-old Henderson, maybe going 3-for-3 last night to produce a career-high in hits would help? He is now batting .220 with a .753 OPS for the year. He added two stolen bases, becoming the first O's rookie with two steals since outfielder Matt Angle did so Sept. 19, 2011 at Boston.
Since May 1, over 32 games, Henderson is batting .245/.336/.489/.826 with four doubles, two triples, five homers and 13 RBIs.
Henderson said he was not trying to hit a home run when he did on Thursday to give Baltimore a 4-3 lead as they avoided being swept.
“For me, it’s about hitting the ball hard,” he said. “It’s just about trying to square the ball up. If you get it good, it can be a homer or maybe a hard line drive.”
And his recent plan of sometimes going after a non-strike, even though he has an excellent 15.3 walk rate, is all about knowing which balls he can drive. If he can drive a ball that is not a strike, he thinks he should go for it.
“I felt like I had a good plan of where I wanted the pitch to start,” he said about Thursday’s homer. “The at-bat before, (Austin) Haysie got rung up on a borderline pitch that we thought was a ball. Just wanted to get something early (in the count) because I figured he would try to get out of the inning as quick as he could after that. Get something I could do damage with.”
And he was also looking for something up in the zone.
“Yeah, because he had a lot of stuff that showed good movement at the bottom of the zone with a split-change and cutters and sliders. So just get him a bit up in that situation because I didn’t want to have to battle him at the bottom of the zone.”
So Henderson is not about to go chasing many pitches, he knows the zone too well for that, but he said he now realizes there may be times he can take a pitch just off the zone and do something good with it.
“There are pitches that might be off (the zone) but you can do damage with early in the count,” he said.
Henderson mashed his first two singles 106.9 mph off the bat Friday, helping the Orioles improve to 15-6 in series-opening games.
Their 3-2 win over Kansas City improved their record to 39-24 on the year and they have won back-to-back games for the first time since May 24-25.