It’s difficult to believe, but the summer of 2020 was a crucial step in Gunnar Henderson’s education as a professional ballplayer.
After getting his feet wet in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League the summer before, Henderson’s natural progression likely would have taken him to Low-A.
Instead, the minor league season was canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving thousands of prospects to train remotely until the fall, when instructional leagues were given the go-ahead.
Henderson was more fortunate. Drafted by the Orioles in the second round in 2019 out of high school in Selma, Ala., the shortstop was part of a group of prospects and veterans selected to head to the Orioles’ alternate training site in Bowie, Md., home of the organization’s Double-A affiliate.
Instead of facing pitchers more in line with his experience level, Henderson got at-bats against some of the more advanced arms in Baltimore’s system.
Every day, he got to face pitchers like current big leaguers Kyle Bradish, D.L. Hall, Dean Kremer and Dillon Tate, as well as righthander Grayson Rodriguez, the Orioles’ top pitching prospect and one of the best overall prospects in baseball.
Much like a high school senior auditing college classes in his spare time, Henderson’s time at the alternate site gave him a taste of what was to come. So when the minor leagues resumed as normal in 2021, he was ready. The numbers weren’t eye-popping—he hit .258/.350/.476 with 17 homers—but Henderson still zoomed from Low-A to Double-A in just 105 games.
But it was this year that Henderson truly began to hint at his potential. Neither Double-A Bowie nor Triple-A Norfolk provided much resistance, and the 21-year-old morphed from an upper-tier prospect into a truly elite talent who heads baseball’s No. 1 farm system.
Henderson assumed the No. 1 spot on the Top 100 Prospects at midseason and earned his first big league callup on Aug. 31, with the Orioles in full pursuit of their first playoff berth since 2016.
For his outstanding season, Henderson is Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year.
At the two highest levels of minor league play, Henderson hit .297/.416/.531 with 19 homers and 22 stolen bases in 112 games.
“Gunnar is a very talented and gifted player, but he had things that he needed to work on. There were some holes to his performance game,” Orioles farm director Matt Blood said. “To his credit, he attacked those full steam ahead this offseason, and really throughout the entire season. He took his developmental goals seriously. He worked incredibly hard. He did not back down from challenges, and he just keeps getting better and better.”
One of those goals was to smooth out his swing path in a way that would allow the lefthanded hitter to become less vulnerable to fastballs with ride at the top of the strike zone. Starting in the spring, Henderson and Baltimore’s player development group tailored his practice routine toward attacking that deficiency and helping him become a more complete hitter.
In particular, he stepped in against a Hack Attack fed with softer, foam baseballs designed to simulate an exaggerated version of the hoppy fastballs that had been his weakness. The practice was limited to two or three rounds of six pitches per day, incorporated into his regular routine.
As days became weeks and weeks became months, the practice paid off. Minor league pitchers—as advanced as those he faced two summers ago at the alternate site—could not come up with an answer for Henderson, who had quickly become a problem.
“Last year, I had a little bit of swing and miss at the top of the zone and felt like over the offseason, I was kind of able to flatten that out a little bit,” Henderson said. “Now I can get to (pitches) up and down and even both sides of the plate, so I just really felt like that helped me clear up a lot of stuff and gave me a lot of success.”
Despite opening the year as the fourth-youngest player in the Eastern League and one of just nine players younger than 21 in all of Double-A, Henderson dominated. He overwhelmed the league with a 1.025 OPS in 47 games before earning a promotion to Triple-A.
Roughly a month later, Henderson was in Dodger Stadium, where he led off for the American League in the Futures Game. He walked once that day and scored twice in the AL’s victory.
Back at Norfolk, Henderson was resplendent. The youngest player at Triple-A continued to hit for average and power while alternating with Jordan Westburg—another key piece of Baltimore’s return to prominence—between shortstop and third base with a handful of games at the other two infield positions mixed in as well.
“Versatility has become so important in this game. It’s a great way to fill out lineups in the big leagues, having guys who can play all over the place,” said Norfolk manager Buck Britton, who was also Henderson’s manager when the two were at Bowie toward the tail end of 2021.
“So when he got here, it was immediately like, ‘Hey, you’re gonna play short, but we’re also going to put you at third, so that’s something he became comfortable with early.’ ”
That formula has held true in the big leagues, where Henderson had bounced between shortstop, third base and second base.
Henderson rose to the occasion. In his first 26 games, he had hit .276/.330/.471 with three home runs, the first of which came off Cleveland’s Triston McKenzie in Henderson’s MLB debut.
Being in the big leagues so early is tremendous enough on its own, but by bringing him up in a moment steeped with opportunity, the Orioles have loudly signaled their confidence in Henderson to join Adley Rutschman as the potential faces of the franchise’s next chapter.
Part of the reason the Orioles were comfortable bringing Henderson into the fold during a stretch run was because of the presence of players like Rutschman and Kyle Stowers and Ryan McKenna and Terrin Vavra, all of whom were Henderson’s teammates at some point in the minor leagues.
Stacking all that young talent together helps keep the pressure off of one player, no matter how much anticipation surrounds his arrival.
“They’ve spent a lot of time together competing with each other in the cage or on the field, and so you had a pretty good sense that he was going to fit in well with them,” Blood said.
“And then his size and his demeanor and his skill set just draws immediate respect from players,” Blood said. “Whenever you see this guy run or when you see how hard he hits the ball or when you see him throw missiles across the diamond with his 80 arm, you can’t help but respect him.
“That gave us a pretty good sense that he was going to be OK.”