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Gunnar Henderson Just Scratching the Surface

Gunnar Henderson HR
photo: Twitter/@Orioles
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The Orioles are cooked right now. After losing two games in a row against the Tigers and losing another series versus the Blue Jays, they are pretty much done. They aren’t mathematically eliminated yet, but the way they are playing just doesn’t scream “playoff team.” This offense is dreadful, and the lineup changes that many fans want won’t happen, and now the Orioles have run out of gas. The issue with running out of gas is that you have to wait for the tow truck; that is what the Orioles are doing right now, just waiting for the season to end so that this nightmare September will end.

At this point, even finishing above .500 would be a plus.

My last couple of articles have been negative, so flipping the script and focusing on positives seems like the best route. People understand the Orioles are struggling, so I want to look toward the future and start focusing on the future and what the offseason could be. Before diving into the offseason, I want to focus on the positives of this season. This team has two players that are young and are true superstars.

Today I wanted to focus on Gunnar Henderson and look at how good he has been this September and why he could be the team’s best offensive player going forward.

Here is the crazy thing about Gunnar this month…imagine you are in Gunnar’s shoes right now. You are a 21-year-old who has taken a gigantic leap in development. Going from struggling last year in High-A, to becoming one of the best prospects in MLB in one year. That would be challenging enough, but now imagine the pressure that builds with any top prospect and elevate it to now have to carry a struggling offense. Add in the fact that the Orioles are using Gunnar all over the field, forcing him to play second (a position he had never played until this year), and moving him all over the lineup; it would be understandable he struggled a bit at first. This hasn’t been the case at all, and Gunnar has shown that he is a superstar and can be the most talented player on a baseball team.

Gunnar has played great this year, but his numbers look even better when we consider his situation.

Henderson is hitting .319/.373/.565, with three home runs, six doubles, and one triple with an OPS of .938. He has ten extra-base hits in only nineteen games with that slash line. Are those stats too generic and not deep enough? Fine, let’s go a little bit deeper. Gunnar has a 164 WRC+, which ranks second on the team in September, only bested by Adley Rutschman.

[For a WRC+ Explainer, click here]

Gunnar also has a good ISO at .246 (.250 is considered elite), and he also has an insanely high BABiP at .373. Are these stats not enough? Let’s continue. He has a wOBA of .397, which is excellent, so he is getting on base well and has been patient. Patience is important, but a 21-year-old isn’t supposed to have this level of patience at the plate…yet he does. He has an eight percent walk rate, which is fine for a rookie trying to carry an offense in September.

What makes Gunnar so exciting, though, is that his at-bats are that of a nine-year veteran, and he is slamming the ball. Henderson has a hard hit % of 51.9 right now. Are you kidding me? 51? That is crazy for a rookie. His max EV is a little low at 109, but if he is hitting the ball hard half the time, that doesn’t matter. Gunnar’s at-bats can be fun to watch, as he is only chasing 18% of the time this month, and he is making a ton of contact when the pitches are in the zone.

Henderson is fun and has a chance to be a superstar, but he isn’t flawless. The biggest issue for me is that he strikes out a lot. He has struck out 20% of the time, which is a little high. However, I am not concerned about his strikeouts because one pitch is giving him trouble: the breaking ball. He is whiffing on breaking pitches 30% of the time, and his numbers take a huge hit when facing breaking pitches. Off-speed pitches also give him trouble as he is whiffing on them 28% of the time, but his numbers are fine on those pitches. If Gunnar fixes his patience on breaking balls and learns to lay off a little bit, he can take that step up into becoming an elite offensive player. On the bright side, we knew that breaking balls would give him trouble, and an adjustment had to come as he had the issue in the minors as well.

Gunnar’s base running is fine, but he isn’t going to be an elite base runner. What has stood out has been his speed because he ranks high in his sprint speed. If he learns to be a better base runner, he has the speed to make him a legit threat.

Henderson’s defense is the one thing that is hard to pinpoint. The defensive metrics don’t love him, but how much of that is due to him playing Second and not his natural Third or Shortstop? Advanced defensive metrics are also a bit weird, so again hard to say how good he is or isn’t. Gunnar has made some splash plays, and his arm is strong. At this point, his defense is inconclusive because of how weird the advanced metrics can be, and he is playing out position. Gunnar can be a special defender, especially if the Orioles stop the crap and play him at third every night, with some Shortstop mixed in.

Henderson is a special hitter right now and has already accounted for 0.7 WAR. Considering his bad defensive metrics and strikeout issues, this should show how good he can be.

Going forward into 2023 and beyond, the Orioles should just put him at Third because if they do that, it will help him get into a groove mentally and he can focus on getting better.

Considering everything with Gunnar’s situation, struggling would be acceptable. Gunnar has performed as well as anyone should have expected, and the Orioles have something special brewing; if this continues, there isn’t a reason why Gunnar Henderson can’t be the best player on the Orioles going forward.

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