NEW YORK — Before the seventh inning even began, Gunnar Henderson grabbed his bat and headed down the tunnel toward the cage. He was on the bench Wednesday night, out of the lineup against a left-hander, but Henderson mapped out scenarios in his head.
Should the Yankees pull Nestor Cortes for a right-handed pitcher, Henderson knew, his lefty bat would be required off the bench.
Preparing as a pinch hitter is part of the early-career development Henderson is experiencing with the Orioles. He took 10 to 15 hacks in the cage, planned in his head what his approach would be against right-hander Jimmy Cordero, and then came to the plate with two runners on.
“The one time you don’t get ready is the one time you won’t go in,” Henderson said.
Henderson didn’t waver from the approach he formulated in the batting cage. He saw the low sinker, turned his hips and lashed it down the right-field line for a two-run double. He knew what he was looking for and got it — and in that way Henderson best exemplified what he’s done well the last few weeks.
By his own admission, this hasn’t been the start to the season Henderson wanted. Considered a favorite by many to win AL Rookie of the Year, he’d look up at the scoreboard, see a sub-.200 batting average and feel the desire to perform better. But now, Henderson said, he’s “starting to get over that hump,” and he’s reached this point by following the same mentality he employed in Wednesday’s pinch-hit appearance.
As his batting average dropped, he felt the familiar pressure to change something — anything from his swing mechanics to which pitches to home in on. Henderson has learned, though, that changing for the sake of change is a slippery slope, and he’s seeing improvement because he was steadfast in what he did at the plate.
“Sometimes when you go through it a little bit, it can shake your confidence,” Henderson said. “You can start to get in between, trying to be too perfect. And that’s not the way to go about it. It’s just checking the boxes and learning how to go through these developmental stages early in my career and using that to propel my future career.”
He’s been in a similar position before, even if the attention was lesser. With High-A Aberdeen in 2021, Henderson struggled to the point he began tinkering with his swing, especially when he found himself with one hit in his first 44 plate appearances at that level.
But as he tinkered there was no solution in sight. He found, more than anything, that his issues deepened; instead of looking for a fastball and trusting his gut, Henderson found himself “in between” that or an off-speed offering. As a result, he’d be late on fastballs and early on breaking balls.
Henderson slipped into that tendency this season despite knowing that it’s not worth overhauling a swing because of one slow month.
He caught himself before he spiraled, though.
“If I didn’t go through the stuff I did in Aberdeen, then I would’ve more than likely started changing stuff, then still been in between,” Henderson said. “So it would’ve just kept going further and further down. That’s when you get in trouble, so that’s why I say you want to go through those experiences early.”
The caveat to this all, of course, is that even as Henderson struggled by his standards at the plate he still got on base at a high clip. Through his first 15 games, the 21-year-old was hitting .167 but held a .365 on-base percentage. Entering Thursday night, his average had climbed to .206 with a .337 on-base percentage.
The production has turned in his favor, too. Beyond Henderson’s two-run double Wednesday, he stayed on a changeup from right-hander Gerrit Cole on Tuesday and powered it out of the yard for a home run. And in Thursday’s series finale Henderson lined out and walked twice (in one at-bat he worked back from an 0-2 count to walk).
Over his last 11 games entering Thursday, Henderson had recorded 11 hits — including three doubles, one triple and two homers.
“Being a young player today, with hype, it’s a ton of pressure,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “A lot of people are expecting big things. This game is just not that easy, and teams just aren’t going to allow you to have huge success early a lot of the times. Gunn’s done a great job of just taking a day-to-day approach, super process oriented.”
To Henderson, though, he’s still working on narrowing his focus to the process rather than results. He recalls when he chucked his bat into the dirt at Camden Yards on May 15 after he struck out with two runners on base.
Henderson felt he should’ve at least fouled the pitch off, or perhaps driven in a run.
“I know I can do it. It’s just, why is it not happening?” Henderson said. “That’s when you get caught in the results side of things. I’m still learning about how to go through the process-oriented side of things.”
But when he gets in those ruts, Henderson thinks back to the words he heard in Aberdeen from Kathryn Rowe, the Orioles’ minor league mental skills coordinator. He resets his thinking.
“Trusting that you know you’re good enough,” Henderson said. “You got here for a reason.”
Hyde added: “People have got to remember, he’s 21 years old. So to be doing what he’s doing right now, he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch going forward.”
That underscores the importance of perspective. Even as Henderson went through a slow first month, he still walked 17 times in 23 games. It’s not as if he was an automatic out, despite a low batting average.
But now Henderson’s plate appearances the past two weeks are showing more promising results. And it’s all because he didn’t panic. He didn’t change his approach or his swing, and it’s allowed him to come through in big moments, such as with Wednesday’s pinch-hit heroics.
“I don’t feel like I’m in a groove yet, but I’m starting to get there,” Henderson said. “And, whenever I do get in that groove, I know the power numbers are going to take off and everything will start to come around. Starting to head in the right direction.”