In nearly everything the Orioles have tried to do recently in player development, there’s been a constant in their plans to improve players and prepare them for the big leagues: the only way to get better is to be challenged.
So, however difficult it must have been for young hitting prospect Gunnar Henderson to go hitless for his first seven games after a recent promotion to High-A Aberdeen, the long-term goals are never out of sight.
“It’s good to go figure it out now,” Henderson said. “That’s what they want, for us to go out and get it early. Hopefully, we’ll make it to the bigs and already know what to expect. I’m thankful for the experience. Yeah, I’m not going to be happy about it, but at the same time, that just fuels me to keep going and get better.”
Henderson, the 42nd overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft, was a revelation at Low-A Delmarva to begin the season, batting .312 with a .944 OPS and eight home runs in 35 games before his promotion. He was the Low-A East Player of the Month in May. But until a late-game single in the back half of Wednesday’s doubleheader against Brooklyn, when he singled on a line drive to left field, he had walked 11 times in his 32 plate appearances without collecting a hit.
As the hitless streak grew, it wore on Henderson, who turned 20 Tuesday. But even in what’s been a stunted professional career, Henderson has benefited from being challenged already. He was in the Gulf Coast League after being drafted in 2019, then was the youngest player at the team’s alternate site in 2020 as he faced major league caliber pitchers and top young pitching prospects on a daily basis.
He struggled early, but the second half of his summer there was immensely beneficial and helped his prospect star rise. Aberdeen hitting coach Tom Eller was at the Bowie site as a coach there and has plenty of experience already seeing Henderson work through challenges to become a better player.
“We just tried to keep him sane and just like, ‘Gunnar, you’re 19 years old, you’re in a Double-A, Triple-A kind of setting right now,’” Eller said. “You just have to continue getting better. You’re going to struggle, you’ve just got to fight through the struggles and keep building. I remember halfway through, something just started to click and you could tell he was starting to see the ball better and hit the ball in the air a little better. It was amazing to watch.”
Henderson said that experience at the alternate site and in a similar challenging environment this spring helped launch him to his success with the Shorebirds. The pregame work and the mixed batting practice sessions featuring high-velocity off a pitching machine and coach-pitched hitting helped, he said, and even though he’s fighting his swing since he got to Aberdeen, there’s no bad experiences in his mind — only learning ones.
“That was one of my biggest goals for this year, just become the most experienced young person I can,” Henderson said. “I felt like thorough the experience in the [alternate] site and taking it through here and going through each level, I feel like that’s really going to help. Experiencing it now, I feel like I’m going to get it here if I just keep going.”
The challenge in Aberdeen is a particularly steep one for someone who arrived at age 19 with fewer than 300 professional plate appearances. Still, the Orioles have been aggressive in promoting players in the first two months of the season to levels that appropriately challenge them.
Aberdeen manager Kyle Moore said it’s “a great mindset that the organization has,” but noted “it’s a tall order” to ask a player to come to a high level off a disjointed season with the pitchers in High-A East the best he and Eller have seen at this level.
Still, he said he was “super encouraged” by how Henderson handled the challenge that came with his promotion.
“He’s struggling at the plate a little bit because he’s facing some really good pitching,” Moore said. “So what? He still goes out and plays his tail off on defense every time. That’s what I look at as a manager. Is he still showing up? Is he still going to play defense like a champ today? The answer so far has been yes.”
Henderson identified that part of his issues at the plate with the Ironbirds have been how he’s trying to pull the ball as opposed to keeping the opposite-field approach that helped fuel his success both up to and into this season.
Down at Delmarva, hitting coach Patrick Jones saw Henderson’s opposite-field power as a sign of how confident he was in his approach and a positive in that Henderson had a firm grasp of what kind of hitter he was. Henderson said he’s always been that way.
“Even in high school, that’s where a majority of my home runs went,” Henderson said. “I love staying in the gaps. I don’t like to get pull-side, down the line. I feel like I pull off it. But if I just think left-center and just stay that way, I feel like that just keeps my body in sync and that just helps me react to anything and ultimately drive it to both sides.”
As his hitless streak wore on, Henderson carried the weight of it to every at-bat. But that hasn’t changed the outlook on what has, outside that stretch, been a standout first full season.
“I’ve enjoyed it, just getting to play every day,” Henderson said. “You can’t get this experience other than in pro ball, so I feel like this is where I’ve always wanted to be, and where I’m happy to be. Throughout the whole year, you get all the experiences, going through the ups and downs, just being able to handle it and work through them and learn how to limit them and shorten the duration.”
Eller believes Henderson will “turn it on real soon” in Aberdeen. After all, he was the best hitter in the league at Delmarva.
“His [batting practice] has been getting better and better every day,” Eller said. “He’s now 20, so he’s grown up a little bit. But he’s a dude. He’s a man. He hits the ball, and every ball he hits is 95-plus [mph]. It’s just about getting that accuracy with the barrel consistently. It’s been good so far. I know he’s been struggling a little, but he’s learning from it.”