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After his Rookie of the Year performance, the sky’s the limit for Gunnar Henderson

The budding superstar broke the Orioles’ 34-year ROY drought with a standout 2023 season. What does he have in store for an encore?

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images

Take a trip on the wayback machine with me, friends. Let’s travel all the way back to...May 2023.

King Charles was coronated. The Writers Guild of America strike began. Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce were not yet dating. It was truly a strange time.

Another thing happened in May 2023, too: Gunnar Henderson was struggling. The 22-year-old Orioles infielder, the preseason favorite for American League Rookie of the Year, failed to live up to the hype in the season’s first two months. By the middle of May, his batting average fell to .170. His OPS dropped as low as .643. He was frequently on the bench against left-handed starters.

Henderson’s struggles were severe enough that a vocal contingent of Orioles fans advocated sending him down to Triple-A Norfolk to get straightened out. The sentiment wasn’t completely unreasonable. With the benefit of hindsight, though, we can now point and laugh at those people.

Henderson didn’t need a minor league reset. Even during his early struggles, he was still taking his walks and getting on base at a solid clip, with an OBP that was usually at least 130 points better than his batting average. He could control the strike zone even when he wasn’t doing damage with his swings. What he needed was a slight change in his plate approach, not a complete overhaul.

Before May was over, Henderson was starting to make adjustments for the better. In his own words, he had been “too passive” early, letting hittable pitches go by and finding himself in bad counts. He began attacking pitches more aggressively, while still showing enough patience to draw his share of walks. He also made some tweaks to his batting stance, lowering his front shoulder to allow him to drive the ball more fluidly.

With those issues ironed out, everything clicked for Henderson, who transformed into one of the game’s best hitters for the rest of the year. Starting June 1, Gunnar batted .276/.322/.535 with 23 home runs and 52 extra-base hits in 100 games, looking every bit like the player who ranked as baseball’s #1 prospect before the season.

The O’s had stuck with him through his slow start, and boy, were they rewarded. As he took off, so did the team. It’s impossible to imagine the Orioles steamrolling their way to the top of the AL East without Henderson, who developed into the most dangerous bat in the lineup. He started all but three of the Orioles’ final 85 games, and one of those days off was after the O’s clinched the division. Henderson was the club’s leader in WAR (6.2) if you ask Baseball Reference, while FanGraphs ranked him second (4.6) to Adley Rutschman’s 5.1.

Henderson had no shortage of standout performances. He powered a go-ahead homer in the late innings in San Francisco, then did the same thing six days later in Milwaukee when the O’s were on the verge of getting swept for the first time. He hustled a single into a triple to open a pivotal four-game series in Tampa Bay. He had the game of his life in Oakland, needing only a single to hit for the cycle...and zooming right past it for a double instead.

But perhaps his most memorable contribution came on Sept. 16, during the Orioles’ humongous four-game series with the Rays that would ultimately decide the division. The Birds had lost the first two, falling back into a first-place tie, and many O’s fans were in a state of panic that the season was about to collapse. That night, in front of a packed house at Camden Yards, Henderson sparked the offense with three hits from the leadoff spot, including a crucial two-run homer and an RBI single to help the Birds build a comfortable early lead and regain control of the East.

It wasn’t just his hitting that made Gunnar so valuable. His talent and versatility on defense made everyone around him better. Henderson split his time almost equally between third base (68 starts) and shortstop (64) and played superbly at both of them, particularly at short, where his 10 Defensive Runs Saved were the most of any Oriole at any position. Henderson’s ample range and rocket arm at two positions allowed him to make plays like this. And this. And this. The highlight of his defensive showcase was his over-the-shoulder catch and throw to cut down his NL Rookie of the Year counterpart, Corbin Carroll. Henderson’s flexibility to switch between two positions allowed Brandon Hyde to mix and match his lineups to best suit his needs, another key reason for the Orioles’ success in 2023.

By the end of his breakout season, Henderson’s individual accolades came rolling in. He first was voted the Most Valuable Oriole by members of the local media, only the fourth rookie in club history to earn those honors. And on Nov. 13, Henderson was the unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award, breaking the Orioles’ 34-year drought in that category. He led all AL rookies in WAR, homers, triples, runs, RBIs, extra-base hits, and total bases. Yeah, that’ll do it. Gunnar later finished in eighth place in the AL Most Valuable Player voting as well.

Gunnar Henderson’s rookie season was everything O’s fans could have dreamed of and more. And yet you get the feeling that he’s still got more potential ready to unlock. Imagine if he can put up this kind of performance next year without a two-month slump first. Or if he can raise last year’s 0.35 BB/K ratio a little closer to the 0.50 mark he had in his minor league career. He’ll only turn 23 in June, so there’s room for even more growth with his first full MLB season under his belt.

Will he be on the 2024 Orioles? Yes, of course! And if all goes well, he’ll be leading the charge for another Orioles postseason run.

All 2023 player reviews: Ryan McKenna, Jacob Webb, Austin Voth/Keegan Akin, Adam Frazier, Jack Flaherty, Shintaro Fujinami, Aaron Hicks, Bryan Baker, Jorge Mateo, Kyle Gibson, John Means, DL Hall, Jordan Westburg, James McCann, Ryan O’Hearn, Mike Baumann, Ramón Urías, Cole Irvin, Ryan Mountcastle, Danny Coulombe, Tyler Wells, Cionel Pérez, Austin Hays, Yennier Cano, Dean Kremer, Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, Grayson Rodriguez, Félix Bautista, Kyle Bradish, Adley Rutschman