CLEVELAND – Gunnar Henderson led off last night’s game with a walk, his mature approach at the plate enabling him to see eight pitches before tossing his bat toward the dugout. He singled in the fourth inning, pulling a splitter into right field at 103.9 mph off the bat.
The stolen base that followed made him the first rookie in Orioles history and the 20th in the majors with at least 20 doubles, five triples, 20 home runs and 10 steals.
What didn’t Henderson do in a much-needed 2-1 win over the Guardians?
Strikeouts in his last two at-bats left Henderson one extra-base hit short of Cal Ripken Jr.’s club rookie record of 65 in 1982.
The Orioles have seven games left before the playoffs. Time and talent are on his side.
“Any time you can be considered with Ripken, and especially in the Orioles’ history, is going to be pretty special, because he’s one of the greatest Orioles to ever do it,” Henderson said yesterday while sitting at his locker. “To have my name up there with his would be pretty special.”
So is Henderson, 22, the favorite to be named American League Rookie of the Year?
“He’s definitely set a very strong tone,” said outfielder Ryan McKenna. “He’s such an impressive player, as we’ve all seen so far. I think that guys coming up will look at him and say, ‘Hey, this is something that is achievable. We can strive for excellence.’ Just the discipline that he has. I think that he’s going to be a very good piece for guys coming up and observing him and seeing what he does on a daily basis.”
Henderson first met Ripken in 2018 at the Under Armour All-American Game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Henderson went 1-for-3 with two RBIs and a walk while starting at third base.
“Bill Ripken was actually one of our managers for the team. And then Cal actually gave us our memorabilia Under Armour gloves that we got, so I met him there,” Henderson said.
“Over the years I’ve talked to him since I was drafted. Talked to him a little bit in Aberdeen, and he came to (Camden Yards) a few times last year and this year. I’ve gotten to talk to him a lot. He was telling me that he loves watching me play at short because he was a taller shortstop, as well, going through it. So, he loves watching me play there because he had the same kind of thing growing up. It was like, ‘You’re too tall to play shortstop.’ So, I feel like he’s kind of seeing that same side of things.”
Ripken also can relate to a slow start to a rookie season. He was batting .123 with one home run and a .138 on-base percentage by the end of April and wondered whether he’d be optioned.
Henderson slashed .189/.348/.311 in the first month and .213/.315/.425 in May. No one was talking about awards.
Now, they can’t stop talking about Henderson.
Before yesterday, Henderson led major league rookies with a 6.1 bWAR, 27 homers and 64 extra-base hits and was tied for the lead with nine triples. He was first in the AL with a 4.7 fWAR, 81 RBIs, 97 runs and 266 total bases.
Henderson got his team-leading 98th run yesterday, the Orioles’ rookie record. Ripken, Willie Tasby in 1959 and Tito Francona in 1956 are the only previous rookies to rank first.
“As with a lot of these young guys here, I don’t know that I’ve seen a young guy handle adversity quite as well as he has. I could probably rack my brain maybe and find one, but not off the top of my head,” said veteran pitcher Kyle Gibson.
“He’s been through the ringer this year. Slow start that has probably derailed a lot of young guys in their first full season, but he never deviated in his approach. He never let it affect him defensively, and then as soon as he got more comfortable with the speed of the game and comfortable with playing multiple positions, he started changing the game nightly on defense. And I think it’s pretty rare for a young guy to be able to do that.
“I think everybody on this team learned a lot about him when he went through that slow start offensively. He still had quality at-bats, he still showed up every day and played hard defensively. It’s harder in today’s game, I feel like, with how much is expected of you offensively, and sometimes how little is expected of you defensively, to go out there and not let your at-bats and your offensive struggles affect your defense, and he didn’t do it one time. That was pretty impressive.”
Not to mention how Henderson is doing it for a playoff team. Batting leadoff again with Adley Rutschman behind him.
“There’s been a lot asked of him this year and I think he’s handled it really well and he’s taking it in stride,” Gibson said. “He’s going to be a leader on this team for a long time. Being thrown into the fire and handling it like he has is pretty impressive.”