‘Sophomore swagger’ helped Gunnar Henderson dominate Double-A. The majors could be next. – Twin Cities
When the Orioles brought their top prospect up to the majors, it wasn’t the first time they promoted Gunnar Henderson into a playoff push.
Last year, Henderson joined Double-A Bowie for the final week of the year to close out his first full season in professional baseball. He had his struggles, striking out in half his plate appearances between the regular and postseason but homering in a playoff game. That latter hinted at what was coming. Henderson learned from the experience and dominated in his return to Double-A in 2022, beginning a climb that has reached Baltimore to help the Orioles’ surprising playoff bid.
“Even though it’s a year ago, you look at him physically, and you see he looks like a man now,” said Orioles co-hitting coach Ryan Fuller, who was Bowie’s hitting coach last season. “He looks like he belongs in the big leagues, where last year you said, ‘OK, maybe he needs another year in Triple-A.’ But to see his development in less than a year is so impressive, and the confidence that he has coming up here, you kind of forget that he’s only been here for a few weeks right now.”
Henderson’s turnaround at Double-A shows the benefits this time in the majors, even as Baltimore’s playoff chances dwindle, will have for him in 2023, when he’ll have a month of big league experience under his belt.
As a 20-year-old, Henderson hit .312 with an OPS of 1.025 back with Bowie this spring to earn a promotion to Triple-A Norfolk. He credited that success to having confidence in his ability to handle the level after already seeing it the year before. Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said he thinks that type of experience can benefit a player.
“I am a big believer in getting a little taste of a level, kind of getting your nose punched, and then going home for the winter and working on the things that you would need to do to get back to that level, and then going back and repeating it and having a little bit of what I would call, like, sophomore swagger to you,” Elias said. “I think that’s a case in point, and he basically proved that he shouldn’t be in Double-A with his play there this year.”
At a new affiliate, Henderson posted a .288 batting average with an .894 OPS with Norfolk. There, he turned 21, hit for the cycle, played in the MLB All-Star Futures Game and became the game’s No. 1 prospect before a promotion to Baltimore, where he homered in his second career at-bat. He’s hitting .293/.356/.439 in the majors and delivered a game-winning hit in one of the Orioles’ two victories this week.
“That experience [at Bowie] helped me a lot, being able to go into a playoff push, especially pro ball,” Henderson said. “That was my first experience in that, and being able to do that and come up here and have an idea of what mindset you need to be in and just how to help the team win in any situation, I feel like that’s been a really big help.”
Fuller noted how much smoother Henderson’s left-handed swing has become. They first worked together at the Orioles’ alternate training site after the pandemic canceled the 2020 minor league season, which was supposed to be Henderson’s first full campaign in pro ball after he was Baltimore’s second-round draft pick in 2019. At the alternate site — also in Bowie — Henderson was a teenager facing the organization’s top pitching prospects and arms shuttling between the camp and the majors. Challenged as the youngest player there, he settled in and showed his potential.
Fuller described Henderson’s hand motion early in his career as “pushy,” but he’s been able to clean that up to produce a swing that levels out and stays through the strike zone, allowing Henderson to drive balls the other way even if he’s late and pull them with effectiveness if he’s early.
“I’m just impressed with, one, how athletic he is,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “For that size, to have that speed, arm strength, just how his feet work, like the whole thing has been really impressive, and the bat speeds different than what I’ve seen in the past, the strength and the bat speed, the way he can really cover and just put really good swings out there. You feel like when he’s up there, he’s got a chance to do some damage.”
Adley Rutschman, who preceded Henderson not only in the 2019 draft but also as the Orioles’ and baseball’s top prospect, made a quick impression on Hyde with the quality of his at-bats, and Hyde said Henderson has done the same. His looks at Henderson came sparingly, largely at mini-camps and the occasional spring training game, but in getting to watch him daily in the past couple of weeks, Hyde has seen a similar approach, the same one Henderson showed in the minors.
“You never know how it translates into the big leagues, honestly,” Hyde said. “Sometimes, the moment can get a little too big for young players. They try to do a little too much, and he’s very, very consistent, honestly. He’s putting good swings on strikes. He’s taking close pitches.
“For them going through this [playoff atmosphere] this year, it’s going to be huge for them going forward. It’s gonna be fun to watch them grow up.”
Fuller can relate, being in his first year as a major league hitting coach and feeling he’s learned much throughout the season. He believes Henderson will have plenty to gain from this month.
“Every day, you learn how things are done, you gain some confidence,” Fuller said. “When you’re looking at Nathan Eovaldi, Rich Hill, all these pitchers you watch on TV as a young guy, and now you’re competing against them — to know that you are competing against them and that you belong up here, I think that fuels confidence every day. Even if you don’t have success off of them, it’s a learning, teaching tool for next year when you face them again. We’re really excited for Gunnar’s development.”
What’s to come?
Last July, the Washington Nationals visited Camden Yards and were swept by an Orioles team that eventually reached 110 losses, sparking a rebuild that had led to the trades of franchise cornerstones Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Juan Soto. With the Orioles’ postseason hopes narrowed, the National League’s worst team can somewhat return the favor. The teams’ two-game series that begins Tuesday represents one of Baltimore’s two remaining series against a team outside of both the American League East and playoff position.
Even if the Orioles aren’t able to capitalize on their opportunity against the Nationals, they can make up for it over the weekend in their three-game visit to Toronto, where they’ll face a Blue Jays team that they trail by 5 1/2 games for a wild-card spot.
What was good?
Rutschman’s impact on both sides of the ball continues to be undeniable. At the plate, he slashed .292/.370/542, the only Orioles regular to post an OPS above .762 for the week. Behind the plate, his absence was noticeable, as it often has been. In dropping six of its past eight games, Baltimore went 0-for-3 when Rutschman didn’t start at catcher.
On the year, the Orioles are 42-26 with Rutschman as their starting catcher, which works out to a 100-win pace over a 162-game season. When he hasn’t been there squatting for the game’s first pitch, Baltimore is 31-41 overall and 15-17 when only considering games he’s been on the roster.
For the first time in a while, there are a lot of options to choose from here, with an anemic offense, short starts coming off the rotation’s best stretch of the year, Félix Bautista’s bout of arm fatigue and a 17-4 blowout loss against Boston among them. But it all culminates in a homestand that represented an opportunity to make a push in the wild-card race but instead widened the gap between the Orioles and the AL’s three extra playoff spots.
After taking the first two games against AL-worst Oakland, Baltimore lost four games of ground in the wild-card standings, largely by dropping three of four games against Toronto.
“Until they say that we’re unable to do so, regardless of if we win out, then yeah,” outfielder Cedric Mullins said of his belief the team can reach the postseason.
The Orioles can technically make up ground on the Blue Jays with their six head-to-head matchups alone, but each loss against them or otherwise worsens their already-low odds.
On the farm
Top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez made two starts this week for Bowie as he continued to build up in his return from a Grade 2 right lat muscle strain. He threw 40 pitches in two innings Tuesday, up nine from his first start back with High-A Aberdeen, and got up to 56 while striking out seven over 2 2/3 innings Sunday. On a five-day turn, Rodriguez’s next start is lined up for Friday, though it’s unclear whether he’ll pitch for Bowie again or at last rejoin Norfolk.
He’s on track to make three more starts before the Triple-A season ends, and by his current pace, that could be enough to get stretched out for at least 90 pitches. The Orioles could then decide to give him one more start in the major league regular season, either to help the playoff push or give him a taste to carry into next year.