This is a Minor League award. That’s important to know because we’re going to talk about a Major League plate appearance.
On Sunday, Gunnar Henderson stepped up to bat in a dreamlike, backyard-type situation. Bases loaded, 1-1 game in the seventh inning at a packed Yankee Stadium. Aroldis Chapman -- the seven-time All-Star and importantly a fellow lefty -- was on the mound fighting for a Yankees postseason roster spot. Henderson worked the count full, fouling off a tough 2-2 outside slider on the black and spitting on a 97 mph heater low and away.
Chapman spun one more slider (his most reliable pitch on the day), and Henderson climactically … walked. The Orioles took a 2-1 lead and eventually won, 3-1, for their 82nd win of the season, guaranteeing the club’s first winning campaign since 2016.
It was one plate appearance -- not even a technical at-bat -- and one that showed how far Henderson has grown to become MLB Pipeline’s 2022 Hitting Prospect of the Year.
“Last year, I probably would have tried to hit a homer, to be honest with you,” Henderson said after the game. “I was just trying to hit something to the gap or pull something to the right side. He walked two guys before me, so I was looking for something over the plate, trying to do damage and this happened.”
Before being called up to Baltimore on Aug. 31, Henderson hit .297/.416/.531 with 19 homers and 22 stolen bases in 112 games between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk. He was one of 111 players to get at least 500 plate appearances between the Minors’ two highest levels, and he finished in the top 10 in OBP, slugging, OPS and wRC+ (154).
The 21-year-old infielder fell one homer shy of the 20-20 club -- a group he would have definitely joined if not for the whole Major League thing -- but he is still only one of three Minor Leaguers to post an OBP above .400, a slugging percentage above .500, at least 19 homers and at least 19 steals. The others are Carroll, who played in hitter-friendly Amarillo and Reno, and Giants outfielder Vaun Brown, a 24-year-old who entered pro ball after five years of college.
Henderson achieved all of that while never facing a pitcher younger than him in 2022.
It was, by all accounts, a breakout season for a player who already entered the season as MLB Pipeline’s No. 64 overall prospect. Henderson hit .258/.350/.476 with 17 homers in 105 games across Single-A, High-A and a brief stint at Double-A in 2021. A 30.9 percent strikeout rate, however, left area for improvement.
“Gunnar is a very intelligent and focused kid,” said Baltimore director of player development Matt Blood. “He's very in tune to his game and to what he needs to work on, and his aptitude is as good as anyone I've come across. You put those things together, and you've got a guy that is intrinsically motivated to work on the areas that he struggled with in the past.”
Henderson, in particular, focused on high pitches that led to a decent amount of his whiffs and turned to machine work to iron out those kinks.
“I did a lot of work with little foam dimple baseballs,” he said. “They overexaggerate the ball at the top of the zone, and they'll literally rise as they come in. I felt like that helps clean my swing up if I'm ever feeling anything a little off. I did that every day in Spring Training, and I still do it most every day here.”
As Henderson was learning better ways to do damage with his swings, he needed also to hone in on improving his swing decisions and learning it was OK to lay off pitches outside of his zone, or what he calls his honey hole.
“Treating the walks with about as much value as a hit has been really big for me,” he said, “because it helps you have success and treat each day like you had a good day, even if you just walked.”
Henderson proved that point by walking more times (21) than he struck out (15) over 19 contests with Bowie in April. When the weather warmed up, so did his power, and he hit .351/.463/.650 in 28 games with the Baysox from May 1 to June 5, prompting a move to Norfolk. His 18.3 K percentage back in the Eastern League was roughly three-fifths the rate of his 2021 mark.
“That's when you knew,” Blood said, “Alright, something special is going on here.”
It’s an approach that helped Henderson cruise through 65 games in the International League and onto his Major League debut on Aug. 31, where he promptly homered off Guardians right-hander Triston McKenzie for his first hit. You may have seen the video of his helmet flying off as he rounded the bases. But the image of Henderson waiting McKenzie out before getting an 88 mph slider down and in that he could drive to right-center might stay with some Baltimore officials longer.
“That's what it’s going to take for us to be a playoff-winning team, a lineup full of guys that don't expand, that make pitchers work and fill up the strike zone,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said after Sunday’s win. “For the most part, our young guys that come up this year have done that.”
Henderson also continues to show plus speed, which can be surprising for someone listed at 6-foot-2, and was 22-for-25 in his steal attempts in the Minors. That athleticism combined with a strong arm have allowed Baltimore to move him around to all four spots on the dirt, though he’s concentrated most at third these days. He’s already been worth 2 Outs Above Average at the hot corner in the Majors.
Henderson will retain rookie status going into 2023, but he’ll also be a more experienced player and arguably the most well-rounded prospect in the game -- one who could be taking even more important plate appearances in Yankee Stadium for years to come.
“Gunnar,” Blood said, “is a huge piece of the future here.”