Throughout a summer with no blueprint for how to best serve the young players in their organization, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias often noted that his concern for young hitters.
Elias said that he fretted most about how the loss of a vital minor league season would affect hitters who recently came out of high school.
In the case of 2019 second-round draft pick Gunnar Henderson, who got one of those coveted spots in the Orioles’ secondary camp at Bowie in the second week of August, the hope is that that experience not only mitigated some of those losses, but turned them into meaningful gains.
The 19-year-old shortstop went from taking daily live batting practice off a family friend and ground balls from his father at home in Alabama to facing the most promising advanced pitchers in the Orioles' organization. After a settling in period that perhaps made it seem like the assignment was too much too soon, Henderson grew to be one of the bright spots in the camp and solidified himself as one of the top hitting prospects in the organization.
“I just feel like it really helped me,” Henderson said. “Going up, you don’t really know what to expect seeing the upper-level pitching and pretty much being able to start that, not having a full season under my belt and being able to see that early and off the bat, it really helps a lot. You know what to expect and as you’re working your way up, you’ll be ready. Hopefully, I’ll boost myself and make it to the major leagues pretty quick.”
Henderson said the pitchers’ consistently high velocity was something that he just hadn’t seen and was an early challenge, coming right after the longest spell away from a baseball field that he’d ever had. The camp featured top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, plus hard-throwers Michael Baumann and Kyle Bradish. It was also where Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin and Bruce Zimmermann were putting the finishing touches on their development ahead of major league debuts. The relievers, too, all had major league stuff and experience.
Every aspect of the camp, though, helped Henderson come around. He’d talk to the pitchers some about how they’d attack him. He was a sponge when around top prospect Adley Rutschman, who by the end of the camp was an impossible out and constantly hitting the ball out of Prince George’s Stadium. Rehabilitating big leaguer Chris Davis also took batting practice with him a few days and gave some tips.
The big change came in the form of a mechanical adjustment, the likes of which seems to fit how the Orioles will identify and rectify swing issues for all their prospects going forward.
Henderson and the hitting coaches at Bowie — Tom Eller, Ryan Fuller and Anthony Villa — caught that he wasn’t fully rotating his hips because he wasn’t getting his front foot down early enough. Using video analysis and the K-Vest wearable motion technology, they found “the upper half was rotating a little bit before the lower half, and that kind of causes discombobulation in your swing,” Henderson said.
“It doesn’t feel right,” he said. “And I could have told them. It wasn’t feeling good. They saw it. But once we got it figured out, it felt really good.”
Henderson said the drills the Orioles used to teach the proper rotation were fun and experimental, allowing him to feel what worked for him instead of using one prescribed approach. He realized it finally clicked when, after two early strikeouts against Bradish in an intrasquad game, he told himself to get his foot down early and let his body react to do the rest. He hit a cutter out for his first home run of the camp.
At the Bowie camp, Henderson also learned quickly that high-level pitchers might only give one pitch to hit in an at-bat, and if you miss it, “you’ve got to really battle,” he said. He improved at that every day, proving a tough at-bat by the end of the camp.
All of this likely would have happened in due time for Henderson, who would have started 2020 in either at extended spring training or at Low-A Delmarva in April had there been a normal minor league season. That first year is for establishing a routine and learning to cope with the daily demands of the sport and the minor league lifestyle.
But while there’s typically some velocity to deal with at the lower levels, pitchers don’t have the kind of attack plans or consistency they do in the minors. Someone such as Henderson could have gone years before being regularly challenged by those kinds of arms. Instead, he got to experience it early and create a foundation for whatever 2021 and beyond hold for him.
Henderson said fellow players and coaches alike told him he couldn’t know it yet, but he was at an advantage going forward for having made the gains he did against that type of competition at his age.
Latest Baltimore Orioles
“I’m very blessed to have been able to get that experience,” Henderson said.