If there was ever a time Gunnar Henderson’s eyes grew large, soaking in his surroundings all at once with self-assured stoicism, it came when the Orioles rookie stepped inside the Green Monster in Boston and ducked his head under the low-hanging concrete ceiling.
His eyes widened then, adjusting to the dark while also taking in the history of those autograph-covered walls. He’d add his name — just Gunnar — to the ceiling, then looked around again. Here he was, a month into his major league career, standing where so many greats had stood before.
And he belonged.
There were few moments Henderson looked the slightest bit flustered this season over the 34 games he played for the Orioles. When he first arrived at the end of August in Cleveland, he lounged on the couch with his other rookie teammates and then blasted his first major league home run. On his return to Baltimore, he wasn’t anxious about the standing ovation he received at Camden Yards or the scrum of reporters hovering around his locker.
The 21-year-old from Selma, Alabama, not only looked the part — he acted it. So entering the offseason after his first taste of the majors, Henderson isn’t tempering expectations for what he’s capable of achieving next year.
“I feel like I can do as well as Rookie of the Year,” Henderson said. “I feel like just putting in the right work and putting myself in the right position. But that only comes from the work that you put in, so you get what you put in.”
Henderson has experienced a rapid rise through the Orioles’ organization. A second-round draft pick out of John T. Morgan Academy in 2019, Henderson rose from Low-A Delmarva to Double-A Bowie within the 2021 season.
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That late-season promotion to the Baysox resulted in only 17 plate appearances, but Henderson credits that opportunity as a springboard to the following season. The Orioles’ top-ranked prospect exploded onto the scene in 2022, breezing through Double-A with a 1.025 OPS before posting an .894 OPS in Triple-A.
That earned Henderson a call-up Aug. 31, an injection of life into a Baltimore batting order that tapered off toward the end of the season, with unexpected playoff aspirations dwindling to a close. Since his promotion, only Ryan Mountcastle (.278) and Adley Rutschman (.263) hit better than Henderson’s .259 average. With runners in scoring position, Henderson hit .316, behind Rougned Odor (.350) and Mountcastle (.346).
Henderson finished the season with 18 RBIs on top of strong defense at third and shortstop. But he won’t rest on the laurels of his partial season — not with his lofty goals for next year.
“I have the self confidence that I’ll be able to do it,” Henderson said of the Rookie of the Year award. “I’m not going to sit there and preach it, cause that’s just not who I am. I’m not going to be cocky about it. But I like to have that in my head to just motivate me through the offseason, and just have that sitting above it, because I always like to have something to motivate you.”
For as promising as Henderson’s first stint in the major leagues looked, he acknowledged that he’ll focus on improving against left-handed pitching this offseason. Against righties, Henderson hit .290. That dipped to .130 in left-on-left matchups.
And while he recorded a .371 batting average against four-seam fastballs, Henderson hit .105 against sliders, according to Statcast. In the batting cage he built behind his family’s home in Selma, Henderson plans to see left-on-left offspeed offerings plenty this offseason in a bid to refine the most noticeable defect from his first 34 games as an Oriole.
Next year, even visits to some of the most iconic venues in baseball won’t enlarge Henderson’s eyes. He’s been here, done that. And if his offseason goes as planned and he uses his 34 games as a launchpad into 2023, Henderson hopes to be among the best rookies in baseball.