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Gunnar Henderson unanimously wins AL Rookie of the Year Award

The Orioles have their first ROY since 1989.

Division Series - Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Every Orioles fan has already been well aware that Gunnar Henderson was the cream of the crop for American League rookies in the 2023 season. On Monday night, he got some official recognition of this fact. Henderson was announced as the choice for AL Rookie of the Year in BBWAA balloting, handily triumphing over the other rookies in the league. He was the first place choice on all 30 ballots.

Henderson has become the seventh Oriole to win a ROY award. The most recent one was given to Gregg Olson for his 1989 season. Among those O’s who’ve won a ROY, Eddie Murray (1977) and Cal Ripken Jr. (1982) went on to Hall of Fame careers. It’s not every winner who manages that feat, but it’s not exactly uncommon for players whose careers start off great at a young age to end up with such career greatness.

Each league has 30 ballots for the major awards, divided up with two votes per league city. For Rookie of the Year, ballots have three spots on them for a 5-3-1 point system. The winner is the one who gets the most points. Henderson got the clean sweep of 150 points.

You could have predicted that Henderson would have a good chance at being among the league’s top rookies based on his prospect stock, since he did come into the season as the #1 prospect in the whole game on most rankings you could find. Finishing the season with a .255/.325/.489 batting line and with defensive metrics that should have won him the multi-position Gold Glove, it seems inevitable that it would end up this way.

That was not actually what happened. Henderson took some lumps in the early months of the season and by the end of May was batting just .201 with an okay-ish but not exciting OPS of .702. Although he was walking in more than 15% of plate appearances, he had also struck out more than 30% of the time. His five home runs up to that point did not forecast the power stroke that he showcased over the remaining four months of the season.

In a June interview with MASN’s Steve Melewski, Henderson acknowledged that he’d been having challenges from being too passive and that he was starting to get more aggressive early in counts. This is the adjustment that did the trick for Henderson, as from June 1 onward he rolled to an .855 OPS and hit 23 of his 28 home runs, with 22 doubles and seven triples added to his tally as well. He was hitting for power and showcasing speed.

It was impressive stuff, and all the more impressive that Henderson could keep rolling at the plate even while bouncing between two different defensive positions. When the Orioles needed him to be a third baseman, he was a third baseman, and when they wanted him at shortstop, that’s what he was. Sometimes, he played both in the same game.

The other players announced as top three finishers for the award simply weren’t on Henderson’s level this year. Henderson finished the year with 6.3 bWAR and 4.6 fWAR. Cleveland’s Tanner Bibee ended up with 3.6 bWAR / 3.0 fWAR for a season where he tossed a 2.98 ERA over 25 starts. Boston’s first baseman Triston Casas closed the year with 2.2 bWAR / 1.7 fWAR, with 24 home runs in 132 games.

This award win is immediately beneficial to both Henderson and to the Orioles. Under the current CBA, a Rookie of the Year winner is paid out $750,000 from a league-wide pre-arbitration player bonus pool to which every team contributes. Henderson will be in for an additional payout from that pool based on his WAR that will probably take him to around $1.5 million. Last year, Adley Rutschman got a bonus from this pool of about $1.1 million as the runner-up for ROY.

The benefit to the Orioles also comes from a provision that is new in the current CBA. Henderson’s ROY win means that the team will qualify for a Prospect Promotion Incentive draft pick in next year’s draft. The PPI picks were added into the CBA with the idea that they would encourage teams to place their top-ranked rookies on Opening Day rosters immediately, rather than go through the old “keep him down in the minors for three weeks to gain a seventh year of pre-free agency service time” strategy that was frequently employed.

Through two years, teams have been taking up that incentive. After the Orioles had Henderson up in September of last year and he looked like he belonged in the show, there never seemed to be much question about whether he’d start on the 2023 big league roster. So, in that sense, the pick is a double bonus for the Orioles because the player’s development and the team’s position on the success cycle strongly pointed towards them behaving exactly the same way if there had been no draft pick incentive at all.

The bonus pick for the Orioles will come in at #32. The PPI picks slot in at the end of the first round and the O’s will get the second of these picks. That’s assuming that Arizona Diamondbacks rookie outfielder Corbin Carroll wins the NL ROY as expected. That team would pick one ahead of the Orioles due to having a worse regular season record.

It’s a nice bonus. The Orioles drafted Henderson himself at #42 overall in the 2019 draft, so a pick in the early 30s is a chance to draft the next Henderson-caliber player. Unless the Orioles sign a qualifying offer-attached free agent - which we all know is not very likely - they’ll also have a pick in the 33-38 range in Competitive Balance Round A. So even though their top pick won’t be until #24, they’ll have three of the top 38 picks. Not bad.

The next award to be announced comes on Tuesday night, when we’ll find out if Brandon Hyde ends up winning the Manager of the Year award after being robbed last year.