It has been true in baseball probably for as long as there has been baseball: Players learn as much from their struggles - and maybe more - than they do from their successes. And it has been said that baseball is a game of failure. A good pitcher with an ERA of 3.00 still gives up three earned runs for every nine innings. A .300 hitter still makes an out seven times out of 10.
In my coverage of the Orioles minors this year, it stood out that several players I interviewed cited overcoming struggles as big for them and felt it would serve them well to go through those tough times now while on the farm.
Two that stand out here for me in this regard - for both their successes this year, but also how they overcame struggles and spoke to me a few times about that - are infielders Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg.
The two have become close friends, and while Westburg is older by over two years, they were linked a lot this year by both their friendship and talents on the left side of the infield, and also that they played together at three levels. They started together at low Single-A Delmarva and both later moved to high Single-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie.
Among O’s minor leaguers with 300 or more plate appearances this year, JD Mundy produced the top OPS at .925, followed by Adley Rutschman at .899, Kyle Stowers at .897, Westburg at .868 and Henderson at .826.
Westburg, the Orioles’ No. 6 prospect by MLBPipeline.com and No. 7 by Baseball America, had a very strong year. He hit .285/.389/.479 with 27 doubles, five triples, 15 homers, 74 runs and 79 RBIs between the Shorebirds, IronBirds and Baysox.
But Westburg had initial struggles each time he moved up. In his first nine games with Aberdeen, he was batting just .206. After his first six with Bowie, he was hitting .136.
“I mean, 120 games brings a lot of learning lessons and a lot of failures,” Westburg said during the Double-A Northeast playoffs at Prince George’s Stadium. “But I think that this year has taught me more than anything to not perceive failures as me losing. Moreso, looking at them as learning lessons and ways I can grow and better myself. I think I’m just more professional in every sense than I was this time last year.”
Henderson went from tearing it up in Delmarva, batting .312 with a .944 OPS, to beginning his time with Aberdeen by going 1-for-31 (.032) in his first 11 games. Now that is struggling, even though he was drawing some walks and striking some balls solidly during the poor start.
By the time Henderson left Aberdeen for Bowie, his OPS was above league average at .775 with the IronBirds. But that start was rough and like nothing he had ever experienced in his baseball career.
“You know, it was actually the best thing that could’ve happened,” Henderson said late in the year at Bowie. “Little League days, through high school and into pro ball, I never experienced anything like that. And when I moved up a level, I didn’t know what to expect. Then I got hit with that.
“Now, looking back on it, I was trying to change things every day, and it just all turned when I was talking to Kathryn Rowe (the Orioles’ mental skills coordinator). She helped me with all that and getting back to what got me there. As soon as we talked, I started hitting the ball more consistently. When I got the call here, I just told myself, ‘Just keep what you have done all through the year and don’t change anything.’ It was a whole lot easier to get that first hit here than in Aberdeen. Really fun to see the progressions, and I will definitely take that to the future. To knock that out (those struggles) early was a real blessing.”
With Westburg, Henderson and so many players I interviewed this year, what might have been most encouraging was to see their smarts and how they understand the process they are going through to be better players. These two seemed to really soak up the coaching they got and dug into things like data and analytics to truly learn how to get better.
Henderson, who does not turn 21 until next June, is rated in the top 100 at No. 74 by MLBPipeline.com and No. 80 by Baseball America.
Westburg told us in Bowie how strong he found the chemistry and camaraderie on the O’s farm this year and he would know playing on the rosters at three different levels.
“There is a special group within this organization. There is so much talent, so much opportunity that you’d be blind not to see it and want to go for it,” he said.