What to expect from Gunnar Henderson

August 31st, 2022

The 2019 Draft keeps providing talent for the Baltimore Orioles.

It’s known, of course, for No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman, currently building a Rookie of the Year case while helping the Orioles compete for a Wild Card. Kyle Stowers, taken in Competitive Balance Round B, has also been up and recently hit his first Major League homer.

Both Rutschman and Stowers came from college powerhouses, so seeing them in the big leagues three years later isn’t too surprising. But when the O’s went the high school route between those two college bats, taking Alabama prep infielder Gunnar Henderson, it’s hard to imagine anyone thought they’d see him on the roster in 2022.

Yet here we are and Henderson was set to make his Major League debut on Wednesday against the Guardians, hitting sixth and playing third. To say it’s ahead of schedule, given that Henderson just turned 21 at the end of June, is an understatement. When he made his Triple-A debut on June 8 after torching the Double-A Eastern League, he was the youngest player to debut at that level this season. And remember, he didn’t play an inning of official baseball in 2020, though player development folks were raving about him and how he handled himself as the youngest player at the alternate site during the shutdown.

It was there that the Orioles first recognized that Henderson could very well be more than the incredibly athletic and big high schooler most thought they were getting. The jump from high school to the pro game can be daunting and the track record of Alabama prepsters hasn’t exactly been strong. But when Henderson understandably struggled to figure out much more advanced pitchers at the alt site, then got going as time went on, he showed off an ability that has driven his progress since: making adjustments.

He did a lot of things well in his first full season in 2021, finishing with 17 homers and 16 steals and earning a promotion from Single-A to High-A and eventually touching Double-A. He scuffled a bit following those promotions, seeing his OPS go from .944 with Delmarva to .775 with Aberdeen and finishing with a 3-for-15 showing in Bowie. The culprit was his pitch selection and propensity to swing and miss. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t draw walks; he had a 12.1 percent walk rate across all levels. But he also struck out in nearly 31 percent of his plate appearances, a rate that made some of us who rank prospects for a living pause before putting him too high on any Top 100 lists. We would want to see what he did at the upper levels before being all in.

Well, we’re all there now. Henderson has jumped to No. 2 on our Top 100 because he once again understood what adjustments he had to make to use his tools consistently and made them. Case in point: His K rate was down to 23.1 percent despite his being very young for both levels this season. And his impressive walk rate actually went up, to 15.7 percent. There’s still work to be done in terms of hitting lefties (.711 OPS), but that’s actually noticeable progress from his .642 OPS, at lower levels, in 2021. Multiple Orioles officials pointed to his improved control of the zone and contact rate as reasons why he’s in Cleveland now.

As a result, he’s getting to his power more while also showing he can be a complete hitter. It’s not wrong to expect some swing-and-miss at first, but he’s going to figure out big league pitchers as well. He’s a basestealing threat and his “hair on fire” mentality means O’s fans should expect aggressive but smart decisions on the basepaths.

Henderson will also bring a team-first mentality to the big league club. He has the athleticism and the easily plus arm -- one that’s much more accurate than it was even a year ago -- to play shortstop at any level on a daily basis. But he embraced playing third even as he wanted to prove wrong the people who thought he’d be too big for short. He was prescient when he told MLB Pipeline, on his last day in Double-A, that he would play third “wholeheartedly” if it got him to the big leagues faster.

He had the same attitude when asked to play second base, and even first, with Norfolk, perhaps sensing the call could come as a result. Expect to see him mostly at second and third, mixing in a start or two at short per week, with first base likely to be an emergency type of deal, if at all. Overall, the plan is for Henderson’s bat to be in the lineup nearly every day. And why not? Why bring him up otherwise?

The biggest thing Orioles fans should know they’re getting is a player who, while he doesn’t lack confidence, tends not to get too high or too low. As he told Pipeline back in early June, he takes to heart the message an organization-mate shared with him about not worrying too much about promotions or the future, that he should “be where my feet are.”

Right now, they’re in Cleveland. And O’s fans should be excited for them to be in the big league lineup for a long time to come.