The beginnings of Gunnar Henderson truly starting to state his case to be the 2023 American League Rookie of the Year may have their origin around mid May to early June of the season.
The preseason favorite to win ROY, Henderson was batting just .170 with a .651 OPS on May 12 amid some of the fanbase wondering if a trip back to the minors was needed. It was not.
Around that time Henderson decided to become less selective and more aggressive at the plate. He stopped waiting for the perfect pitch and realized there are many pitches he could drive. If he started to become more aggressive early in counts, he could do that and keep pitchers from getting ahead of him in counts and getting to two-strike counts where they could more easily put him away.
“Yeah, there are times when I’ve been too passive,” Henderson told me during an early June interview. “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.”
Let’s not underrate how savvy and smart this kid is beyond all the physical tools that he displays on offense, defense and the bases.
He got tired of finding himself in 1-2 counts and seeing a pitcher’s best put away pitch get him out. He went more on the attack. In the last 117 games starting May 13, he hit .274 with an .849 OPS.
His OPS was .994 in June, .824 in July, .819 in August and .831 in September/October.
And last night he became the Orioles seventh Rookie of the Year Award winner, first since 1989 and first to ever win unanimously. He got 30 of 30 first place votes.
And how about this stat: When he put the first pitch in play this year, Henderson hit .481 with an OPS of 1.410. That was even much better than other Orioles who would as a team produce a 1.001 OPS on the first pitch this year – fourth-best in the American League.
When the count was 1-0, Gunnar hit .368 with an OPS of 1.184. And even on 0-1 he hit .327/.855.
On a media Zoom call with Henderson last night, he cited turning his season around as something he was most proud about from 2023.
"For me it's just getting through that beginning part and then just honestly staying consistent for the rest of the season. Being able to get through that little struggle in the beginning was honestly the biggest thing for me. Because some guys can get caught up in that and just have a really hard time getting over it, but I'm very thankful that the Orioles let me go through it. And make it through and being able to put a good year together," he said.
Henderson is the 13th player to win the AL award by a unanimous vote. The other unanimous choices: Carlton Fisk (1972), Mark McGwire (1987), Sandy Alomar Jr (1990), Tim Salmon (1993), Derek Jeter (1996), Nomar Garciaparra (1997), Evan Longoria (2008), Mike Trout (2012), José Abreu (2014), Aaron Judge (2017), Yordan Álvarez (2019) and Kyle Lewis (2020). There have been 13 unanimous winners in the National League including this year's winner Corbin Carroll of Arizona.
The 2023 year marks the fifth time there have been unanimous winners in each league:
1987: Mark McGwire (AL) and Benito Santiago (NL)
1993: Tim Salmon (AL) and Mike Piazza (NL)
1997: Nomar Garciaparra (AL) and Scott Rolen (NL)
2017: Aaron Judge (AL) and Cody Bellinger (NL)
2023: Gunnar Henderson (AL) and Corbin Carroll (NL)
Henderson’s win also will net the Orioles an extra selection in the 2024 MLB Draft through the Prospect Promotion Incentive program. The Orioles have currently the No. 24 pick in the first round (some project No. 25) next July. The pick for Gunnar’s ROY award could fall around the low 30s, we don’t know exactly where yet. And the team is expected to get a pick in Competitive Balance Round A, which could fall between 30 and 40. One projection last night put these three picks at No. 24, 32 and 33. That would be a darn fine haul for the Orioles after a year where they won 101 games.
Three picks between say the 25 and 40 range would be big for the club in a year when they are not picking at the top of the draft. The team would add the bonus pool amount for each pick (likely around $8.3 million for all three), giving the club more economic clout in that draft. And if you don’t think three picks there could be big, just remember Henderson himself was the No. 42 pick in the 2019 draft.
O's ROY winners:
1960: Ron Hansen
1965: Curt Blefary
1973: Al Bumbry
1977: Eddie Murray
1982: Cal Ripken Jr.
1989: Gregg Olson
2023: Gunnar Henderson