Until recently, Gunnar Henderson was having the type of season that different generations of baseball fans would analyze differently. He was hitting the ball hard and walking a ton, but also loading up on strikeouts and sporting a sub-.200 batting average. One thing that everyone would agree upon, however, is that he was not playing as well as he was capable.
Something seems to have clicked the last week-and-a-half. Since the start of June, Henderson is crushing the ball. He’s 11-for-24 with four home runs, a double, and a 1.480 OPS. That has raised his slash line on the season from .201/.332/.370 coming into the month to .236/.349/.455 as of this writing.
Henderson has been so white hot as of late, that he has inserted himself right into the discussion of who is the Orioles’ best hitter. He owns a 124 OPS+, right on the heels of Adley Rutschman’s 126, and within touching distance of Austin Hays (130) and Cedric Mullins (132). That’s not something that would have shocked anyone back in March, but after some of the ups and downs he’s had in the first third of the year, that’s quite an achievement.
O’s manager Brandon Hyde has reacted accordingly. Henderson is no longer buried in the lineup, a move implemented earlier in the season to help ease pressure. Over the weekend he was placed atop the order, where he thrived with five hits and two home runs in two games.
The way in which Henderson is competing at the plate has transformed in one big way: he’s swinging the bat more. In April, he swung at 37.3% of pitches, that jumped to 42.6% in May, and now it is 44.8%. Naturally, that means he is chasing more balls. His chase rate is up to 33.3% this month. So it makes sense then that he has walked just once in the seven games this month.
But it has also meant fewer strikeouts. His strikeout rate was between 31.5% and 31.1% in the season’s first two months, and it is down to 20% so far in June. This is probably due to a combination of factors.
One is that Henderson is gaining experience, and he’s getting better. He’s seen a ton of big league pitches in the last two-and-a-half month. That includes breaking balls, which gave him loads of trouble earlier on. Exposure, work ethic, and talent is a good combination for improvement, and that has seen his swing and miss rate reach a season low (23.3% in June).
And the other big one is that he is not getting as deep into counts. Henderson is coming up to the plate looking to swing the bat lately, often hacking at the first pitch if it’s competitive. That was not how he operated early on. It’s a tactic that is certainly going to diminish his chances of working a walk, but it’s also going to take advantage of his superb bat speed and power. That feels like a pretty good trade off for the Orioles.
The hits have come against pitches of all types: he’s homered on a slider, a changeup, and a four-seam. He’s even got three hits against a left-handed pitcher. That’s a matchup that the Orioles have actively avoided for Henderson, and for good reason. He has a .548 OPS against same-sided hurler this year. But he went 3-for-3 (all singles) against soft-tossing southpaw Daniel Lynch this past weekend. Perhaps that can be a harbinger of things to come.
Look, we are talking about a small sample size here. It’s been seven games, 25 plate appearances, and the pitchers he has faced (particularly this past weekend against the Royals) have not been the stiffest competition. But the change in approach is rather seismic. It’s not a bad idea to trot it out against a more manageable part of the schedule.
Other teams will be aware of tweaks Henderson has made at the plate, and they can do far more than thumb through Baseball Savant tables to find a weakness. More importantly, though, Henderson has shown in the last two weeks that he is capable of learning himself and playing the strategic chess match at the plate. That’s impressive for a player of any age, but particularly a 21-year that was experiencing a rare setback in his baseball-playing life.
The strength of this Orioles’ team is its lineup. It needs to be firing on all cylinders for them to make a run or hope to continue deep into October. Henderson was always going to be a key component. It won’t always be as easy for him as it has seemed in June, but this recent run should give the entire fan base confidence that this sort of output is always simmering below the surface, no matter how much he may be struggling in an individual moment.