There are times where it can feel like Orioles fans are not allowed to enjoy nice things. The early months of the 2022 season had this vibe. Adley Rutschman’s spring training injury, John Means needing Tommy John surgery after two starts, and Grayson Rodriguez suffering a back muscle injury when he seemed to be on the cusp of making his MLB debut all fueled this feeling.
Staying out of the misfortune was Gunnar Henderson, who continued his rise up the minor league ladder and the prospect rankings such that by the time the Orioles had to call him up for the last month of the season, he was by some rankings the best prospect in all of baseball. It was fun that his performance merited the MLB debut and even more fun that he went on to have an exciting September with the big league club, delighting us with defense, with speed that sent ill-fitting helmets flying to unleash glorious hair, and with good hitting.
This was not an out of nowhere explosion onto the scene. Before being drafted in 2019, Henderson had late first round/early second round stock, appearing at #27 on the MLB Pipeline draft class ranking and #40 on the FanGraphs rank of the draft class; the Orioles selected him at #42. About a year after being drafted, there were rumblings something interesting was going on with Henderson at the alternate training site in the summer of 2020. Most sites seemed poised to plop Henderson onto their top 100 lists as soon as he showed that was real in games in 2021. He did.
Heading into this year, there were still some differing opinions about where Henderson belonged on lists. FanGraphs was aggressive on his potential, putting him at #22. The Athletic’s Keith Law, while recognizing Henderson’s skills, had some more reservations than others, rating Henderson at #73 in his 2022 preseason list with this note:
He crushed Low A for a month and a half before a promotion to High-A Aberdeen, where he showed power and patience but had more issues with contact, especially on offspeed stuff close to the strike zone. His swing can be grooved and uphill, which gives him more power but worse ability to adjust to different pitch speeds and locations. ... at third base he was easily plus, maybe a 70 defender. He may not hit for much average with his current swing, but with 25-plus homers, some on-base skills, and elite defense at third base.
As much hype as there was for Henderson, it’s true that he struck out in 30.9% of all plate appearances in the 2021 season. Only three qualified MLB batters struck out more than that in 2022. Even in the age of big strikeouts, 30% is a lot. He was young for every level he played and there were plenty of positives to balance out those strikeouts, but it left questions about where his ceiling might be or how likely he might be to reach it.
By the time Law’s midseason update rolled around at the start of August, Henderson had answered the questions, having ascended to #2 on the list:
He might end up a Gold Glover at third ... He’s shown a huge capacity for making adjustments at the plate over his two full years in pro ball, especially against right-handed pitchers, whom he’s dominated so far this year. He’s still got some work to do against lefties. Since he reached Triple A, he’s been hitting the ball on the ground more ... he has huge upside on both sides of the ball and could be the Orioles’ best defensive player since Manny Machado.
We saw some of the Gold Glove defense potential when the Orioles were chose to just let Henderson rip at third base. We saw Henderson dominate against righties, batting .290/.377/.495 in 106 plate appearances. If he hit to that level over a full season, he’d be one of the top dozen hitters in the league. Obviously, doing that for a month and doing that for six months are different things.
On the negative end, we also saw “some work to do against lefties” - Henderson OPSed just .448 against LHP, though that was only in 26 PA. The “hitting the ball on the ground more” is a valid observation as well. At Double-A, Henderson’s ground ball rate was 40.2%. At Triple-A, it was 50.3%. At the MLB level, this increased to 59.8%. The downsides are worth keeping an eye on, but Henderson’s pro career so far shows that if you give him time to adjust, he’ll do it.
The success that Henderson had in his month of MLB action was not guaranteed. Other 2019 high school draftees who had major prospect stock and played their way to 2022 debuts did not hit nearly so well. #2 pick Bobby Witt Jr. finished below a .300 OBP. #5 pick Riley Greene ended the season with a below-average .682 OPS; #6 pick CJ Abrams, a touted trade piece, had a .605 OPS before being traded and a .603 OPS after.
All of these young guys played more games than Henderson did, so we’ll see what happens over a full season. It’s a nice start. The fact that Henderson was able to perform as well as he did when he was the youngest player in MLB at the time of his debut - he won’t turn 22 until late next June - makes his play even more impressive. Guys like that don’t come along every year.
With what seems to have been deliberate intention, the Orioles promoted Henderson to MLB at just the right time to make sure he would preserve his rookie status for a potential 2023 Rookie of the Year candidacy. Hitters must have fewer than 130 at-bats and 45 days on the roster. Henderson recorded 116 at-bats and 36 days on the roster.
Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, a team can get a bonus draft pick if it has a player receive a full year of service time and win the Rookie of the Year award. If Henderson is able to play a full season next year at something close to the pace of what he accomplished in the final month of the 2022 season, he will certainly be a contender. He was worth a win in bWAR just in his 34 games.
Leave him alone at third base - or maybe even shortstop - and see what happens. I’m excited to find out. What the Orioles will end up doing with their just-minted Gold Glove third baseman Ramón Urías and Gold Glove-caliber shortstop Jorge Mateo is a challenge for general manager Mike Elias to sort out.
Previously: Fallen prospect roundup, Jean Pinto, Darell Hernaiz, Drew Rom, international prospect roundup, César Prieto, Mike Baumann, Hudson Haskin, John Rhodes and Reed Trimble, Cade Povich and Chayce McDermott, Joey Ortiz, Terrin Vavra, injured pitcher roundup, Coby Mayo, Kyle Stowers, Heston Kjerstad, Jordan Westburg, 2022 draftee roundup, Connor Norby, DL Hall, Colton Cowser, Grayson Rodriguez
Tomorrow: Nobody. This is the end of the list.