The Orioles Gunnar Henderson was not in the major leagues that long – for 34 games – but long enough to experience both hot and cold streaks at-bat. And long enough to have some big moments and hits, long enough to show he belongs and that his considerable talents play at the level at the age of 21.
Unlike with fellow top prospect Adley Rutschman, he was hitting well almost from the start, although he did have some struggles late in the year when he said he was getting a heavy dose of breaking balls.
Henderson’s first go-round in MLB produced these numbers over 132 plate appearances: .259/.348/.440/.788 for an OPS+ of 123 with seven doubles, a triple, four homers and 18 RBIs.
He remains rookie eligible, falling short of thresholds of 130 at-bats (he had 116) or 45 days on the roster to lose rookie status. He could win the 2023 AL Rookie of the Year.
He did win the 2022 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year award. Over 121 games between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, he batted .297/.416/.531/.947 with 101 runs, 19 homers and 76 RBIs.
Henderson’s season got off to an electric start at Bowie. He told us in early April how he spent time during the spring, by training by hitting dimpled, foam baseballs in the cage. He did it to help him in drills to both flatten his swing and better get to balls at the top of the strikezone.
He started the year showing remarkable plate discipline stats – stats that would not hold up in the same manner at Triple-A or in the majors, but he got off to a remarkable start at Bowie. And that included drawing more walks than strikeouts at 41 to 38. He had a 1.025 OPS there in 47 games.
The drills he did would over-exaggerate the ride on high pitches, but it helped him and using the foam balls meant he didn’t take any balls off his hands while putting in the work. Or if he did he could avoid injury.
Those drills he said, he continued through the year at all levels.
“It did continue and it was pretty beneficial,” he said. “Helped me be prepared to be successful. I’ve done those drills through the year, almost every single day. Helped me get to those higher velocity balls and not have to worry about wearing one off your hand or something. And then getting the exaggerated movement off of that helped me. You have to train hard to make the game a little bit easier. I am a big believer in training hard and making it harder in practice.”
He said the drills were a big reason for his fast start with the Baysox.
“That was a part of that yes and the experience of last year (ending at Bowie) going into this year and knowing what to expect. Not trying to do too much. Early on, just got my body used to playing again. Got off to a good start and carried that through the year.
“When you begin the year, you always want to get off to a strong start. I was able to do that and later carry that into Triple-A and ultimately here. I was very fortunate to have that great start. Look forward to doing that next year.”
Henderson began the year ranked No. 57 among the top 100 prospects by Baseball America, ending it at No. 1. He was No. 64 via MLBPipeline.com and finished the season at No. 2.
While Henderson ended the year batting .143 his last 14 games, the overall numbers were good. Among O’s with 100 plate appearances, he was second to Rutschman in several key stat groups – in walk rate (12.1), OBP, OPS and walk-strikeout rate (0.47). He was first on the team in Statcast hard-hit rate at 53.7 percent (MLB average is 38.5) and average exit velocity of 92.4 (MLB average was 88.1). He led the team in chasing the fewest pitches, 23.2 percent to Rutschman at 25.4.
So he hits the ball consistently hard and also had very good plate discipline. That is quite the combo moving forward. He said he learned a lot over his big league time.
“I mean, just that there is going to be a learning curve whenever you get up here. You are not going to come here and be dominant for the entire time you’re here. You are going to have to learn about things and I’m at that point right now. Just feel like I am learning through it and am keeping my confidence up for the final games. I know it will come back around, I’ve hit some balls hard, but they were right at people.
“You see guys here pitching you in tough sequences and they don’t miss their spots. I’ve been seeing some more spin (breaking balls) and they’ve been spotting up really well. It’s not spin right down the middle. I have to fight off tough pitches late in the count.”
In other Statcast stats, Henderson ranked in the top nine percent in MLB in sprint speed and top 26 percent in arm strength. He showed five-tool talent.
He said he was going to be buying some of the dimpled balls to work with this winter. If he looks at the stat sheet, he can see areas to work on, including a .130 average and .448 OPS off lefties (against .290/.872 off right). He posted an OPS of .620 at home and 1.007 on the road.
But this kid had quite the year and flashed so much talent from Bowie to Baltimore.
"I mean I will go attack it the same way now. I’m pretty hard on myself so I’ll go and work really hard throughout the offseason. Keep doing what I’ve been doing," he said.