The Orioles haven’t had a Rookie of the Year winner since closer Gregg Olson took home the 1989 honors as a member of the “Why Not?” Orioles. Just as 2023 is the year we all expect (hope) the O’s break a six-year playoff drought, Birdland can also look forward to that 34-year Rookie of the Year dry spell ending this season. That’s right, I’m ready to say it: Gunnar Henderson will win the 2023 AL Rookie of the Year.
Now, to be clear, this is not exactly me going out on a limb. Our friends at DraftKings have Henderson as the clear favorite for the award at +235 odds. Additionally, Henderson has proven himself to be one of the most talented prospects in the history of the Orioles organization. He follows the example set by Adley Rustchman in 2022 by heading into this season as the consensus No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.
Henderson’s raw talent covers every aspect of his game like Old Bay on a well-seasoned crab cake. After all, Gunnar is one of only four prospects in all of baseball that MLB.com rates as their organization’s best pure hitter as well as the best power hitter. With a max sprint speed that ranked in the 91st percentile and a penchant for jaw-dropping defense, there’s nothing at which Henderson can’t excel. Once upon a time, Manny Machado put up eye-popping numbers as a young Orioles’ third baseman. Henderson has every chance to be even better.
Gunnar Henderson could do some special things for the Orioles this year pic.twitter.com/NLnF6nh3BH— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) February 28, 2023
However, raw talent isn’t enough—by itself—to bring home the hardware. Fortunately enough for Gunnar, the circumstances this season should be right for him to separate himself from the pack. Playing in the AL East should play to the strengths of the young, dynamic infielder. Both Fenway Park and Rogers Centre ranked as favorable parks for left-handed hitters in 2022, with Boston’s Park Factor of 111 for lefties the highest in all of baseball. Then again, the park doesn’t exactly need to be hitter friendly when you can do this:
Gunnar Henderson is 21. pic.twitter.com/YBFSrITQtf— The Exit 52 Podcast (@Exit52Podcast) September 27, 2022
While New York and Baltimore rated as much more pitcher-friendly last season for lefties, we all know the potential amounts of damage left-handers can do in those parks. With New York’s infamous short right-field porch and Camden Yards’ flag porch/triples alley combo in right field, a lefty with Henderson’s talent is bound to do damage in the AL East.
The advantages for the young slugger extend beyond just playing in favorable parks for most of the season. Gunnar, during his end-of-season cameo in ’22, already showed an ability to dominate major league fastballs. Henderson’s .371 average against four-seamers was good enough for 19th amongst all major leaguers—outperforming the likes of Yordan Alvarez and Aaron Judge. Overall, against all fastball types, Gunnar posted a .322 average, outperforming his XBA against fastballs by almost 30 points.
His ability to not only handle fastballs but do damage against them will be advantageous in a division full of great fastballs. Of the 20 projected AL East starters, 14 throw some type of fastball at least 45% of the time against lefties. The Yankees’ new one-two punch of Gerrit Cole and Carlos Rodón threw their four-seamers 55.4% and 61.2% of the time against LHBs in 2022. Blue Jays breakout star Alex Manoah threw either his fastball or sinker 61.8% of the time.
Pitchers will surely tempt the Orioles’ young phenom with breaking balls and offspeed pitches as they try to keep him from mashing their fastballs. However, much of Gunnar’s rise through the Orioles system in 2022 was attributable to his improved discipline. After posting a nearly 31% strikeout rate in 2021, Henderson cut it down to 23% in the minors last year. Once at the big league level, he kept his Ks down to a respectable 25.7% and showed discipline not often seen in a 21-year-old.
The other advantage Gunnar has heading into this year is a seemingly shallow level of elite rookie talent. Whereas Adley’s Rookie of the Year hopes were seemingly dashed before he even debuted—thanks to the performance of eventual winner Julio Rodriguez—Gunnar doesn’t face such steep competition. His two biggest competitors, according to DraftKings, come from the AL East as well.
Boston’s Japanese import Masataka Yoshida is perhaps Gunnar’s biggest threat heading into Opening Day. The outfielder is coming off a sparkling performance for the recently-crowned World Baseball Classic champion Japan. Yoshida’s 13 RBIs led the tournament and set a single-tournament record for Japan. A two-time batting champion in Japan, there’s no doubt Yoshida has the skills to eventually become a high-level contributor in the MLB.
However, between his inevitable adjustment period to MLB pitching and uncertainty over where he’ll hit in the Boston lineup, there are plenty of reasons Yoshida could start out slowly and fall behind in the Rookie of the Year race. Couple that with the fact that if he’s not hitting, Yoshida brings almost nothing to the table in terms of speed or defense and it’s easy to see why he’s not the favorite.
The other presumed challenger to Gunnar’s aware push is Yankees’ rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe. Recently named the Opening Day starting shortstop for the O’s rivals from the Bronx, Volpe sits just behind Gunnar in the prospect rankings as the No. 5 prospect in all of baseball. However, with the Yankees returning the majority of their lineup from last season, it’s likely that Volpe starts the season hitting in the bottom third of the lineup. Hitting so low in the order should limit Volpe’s RBI chances and thus ultimately hurt his counting stats.
The last six position players to win AL Rookie of the Year have averaged 28.5 HRs and 77.5 RBIs in their rookie seasons. Given the uncertainties and/or disadvantages facing Yoshida and Volpe, Gunnar seems much more likely to reach those numbers.
When all of Birdland entered into the 2022 season, there were no expectations for any kind of success. However, the surprise success of last year means we collectively as Orioles fans must adapt what we want and expect from our favorite O’s. As such, I proclaim that this season will start with us expecting a Rookie of the Year campaign from Gunnar Henderson—and it will end with Gunnar fully delivering on those expectations.