Carroll, Gunnar linked again as unanimous Rookies of the Year

November 14th, 2023

The leadoff man and center fielder was a Seattle speedster named Corbin Carroll. The third baseman was a tall, athletic kid from small-town Alabama named Gunnar Henderson.

It was the American team at the 2018 Under Armour All-America Game. And as it turns out, it was a preview of the 2023 Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year class in MLB.

When the D-backs’ Carroll and the Orioles’ Henderson were announced Monday night on MLB Network as unsurprising -- and as it turns out, unanimous -- winners of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America rookie honors in the American and National Leagues, it was the second time they were paired together. The first was back when they were amateur prospects in a showcase game at Wrigley Field in which Carroll’s two hits and Henderson’s two RBIs helped lead their squad to victory.

“We got to spend time together there,” Henderson said. “Being able to then take it to the big leagues and both winning Rookie of the Year is pretty special.”

There was also no doubt about it. This marked the fifth time that both Rookie of the Year winners were unanimous and the first since the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and the Yankees’ Aaron Judge in 2017.

“For [the writers] to view me in that way, that means a lot to me, especially in a year like this, where, even beyond the three nominees, there were so many really talented rookie players this year,” Carroll said in a call with reporters. “It means a lot to me that you guys view me as valuable.”

MLB’s new rules environment fostered a faster-paced and more athletically dynamic version of the sport, with several budding ballclubs taking advantage of the context and conditions to surge up the standings with the help of their young blood.

That theme was particularly potent for Henderson’s AL East-winning Orioles and Corbin Carroll’s National League pennant-winning D-backs. These fresh faces contributed considerably to the rise in relevance of their teams and were rightly recognized for it.

Henderson finished ahead of Guardians right-hander Tanner Bibee and Red Sox first baseman Triston Casas, while Carroll beat out Mets right-hander Kodai Senga and Dodgers outfielder James Outman.

Henderson, an infielder, and Carroll, an outfielder, debuted within days of each other in August 2022 and entered 2023 as the top two prospects in the game, per MLB Pipeline. But while their fortunes were forecast by many an evaluator, it would be safe to say they each exceeded expectations for the level of impact they could make on the league’s playoff picture.

Would the Orioles, who entered the season with just a 1.3% chance of winning their division in the FanGraphs-calculated odds, have run away with the best record not only in the AL East, but in the AL as a whole, without Henderson’s heroics?

In a word, no.

Splitting his time between third base and shortstop, the 22-year-old Henderson was a dynamic defender at two infield positions while providing extra-base impact at the plate. He led both his entire team and all AL rookies in bWAR (6.2) and fWAR (4.6) while banging out 28 homers, nine triples, 82 RBIs and scoring 100 runs.

All told, Henderson slashed .255/.325/.489, despite a slow start that left him with a .170 average through May 12. He hit .320 with a .994 OPS in the month of June to win AL Rookie of the Month and never looked back. Henderson’s 66 extra-base hits were the most ever by an Orioles rookie, topping Cal Ripken Jr.’s 65 in his Rookie of the Year season in 1982.

Appropriately, it was Ripken himself who announced Henderson as the award winner.

“I felt for you early in the season,” Ripken told Henderson on air. “In my rookie year in ’82, 3-for-5 on Opening Day and then 4-for-my-next-63. The batboy was telling me how to hit. Everybody was telling me how to hit.”

Henderson said he focused on the process, not the results, when mired in that early slump.

“It’s something everybody goes through at some point or another,” he said. “It just so happened that mine was at the beginning of the year. It just felt like we were putting in the right process. In the beginning, I was hitting some balls hard and nothing was falling. I felt like it was just a couple weeks’ process of sticking to it. Eventually [hits] started falling, and it just took off from there.”

He also played strong defense, ranking third among AL shortstops with 10 defensive runs saved in 64 starts, to go with his three DRS at third base in 68 starts.

Henderson is Baltimore’s seventh winner of the rookie prize and the first since reliever Gregg Olson in 1989.

Would the D-backs, who finished 14 games under .500 and 13 back of a playoff spot in 2022, have made their first postseason appearance since 2017 and then shockingly advanced to the World Series if not for Carroll’s contributions?

Another easy no.

With elite speed and a shocking power profile for a player listed at 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, the 23-year-old Carroll went where no rookie had gone before. His 25 homers and 54 steals made him the first 25-50 rookie ever. The last 20-40 rookie had been the Angels’ Mike Trout in 2012. And though the BBWAA voting took place prior to the start of the postseason, Carroll only cemented his status as one of the game’s brightest young lights in October. His three-hit, two-steal night in Game 7 of the NLCS in Philadelphia propelled the D-backs past the heavily favored Phillies and into their first World Series since 2001.

“It wasn’t an easy season for us,” Carroll said. “We had plenty of tough moments. To be able to find a way to fight through those and come out on the other side made us a much more connected and dangerous team. I think what you saw in the playoffs was that continue.”

Carroll, who led NL rookies with a 5.4 bWAR and all MLB rookies with a 6.0 fWAR, is Arizona’s first winner of this award. He’s also a player the D-backs plan to build around for a very long time, as they signed him to an eight-year, $111 million contract in Spring Training.

“A contract in that way may speed up a lot of things,” Carroll said. “What remained important for me is it didn’t speed up my learning process. I was going through this year the same as anyone else, as a rookie trying to keep an open mind, trying to learn. I think keeping that mindset helped me keep things in perspective.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Carroll and Henderson were teenagers playing together on a showcase squad. They formed a bond from that experience and exchanged jerseys when their clubs faced each other earlier this year. Now they are forever paired as unanimous Rookies of the Year.