Orioles manager Brandon Hyde grimaces every time Gunnar Henderson throws himself full force at the bag, knowing even one minor misstep could lead to an injury.
“I need him to be ready to go at 7:05 tomorrow,” Hyde said.
But that same fiery competitiveness is what’s made Henderson, just 22, the leading candidate for American League Rookie of the Year. He runs to second when stopping at first would get him that highly sought-after cycle. He slams his bat after a strikeout, even if the team is ahead by a sizable margin.
He goes all out in everything he does, despite the wrinkle lines it adds to his manager’s forehead.
“Gunnar plays the game at one speed, and that’s hard,” Hyde said.
With a little over a month left in the regular season, Henderson seems to have the Rookie of the Year award locked up. It was neck and neck with Josh Jung, who has a higher average and one more homer than Henderson, but the Texas Rangers third baseman had surgery this month on a fractured thumb and isn’t expected back until late September.
Even if Jung were healthy, Henderson still may have been able to do enough to edge him out. His average doesn’t fully reflect the season he is having. On paper, he’s hitting .248 with 21 homers. Those are commendable numbers, especially the power output, but his first two months were slow at the plate, causing his average to dip. Since the start of June he’s hitting .280 with 22 multihit games, including two with four hits and five with three hits.
“That’s my vote,” Hyde said. “He’s just a really talented kid. He not only brings the offensive side but the defensive side too. He’s played really well at two positions, has 20 homers in the middle of August. He’s sitting in the top third of our order on a first-place club. He’s just a huge part of our offense. It’s been amazing.”
Although his numbers at the plate early on may not have been special, Henderson has been playing above average at third and shortstop all season. That’s come with an important distinction, as he’s discovered the importance of separating the two sides of the game.
He can come into the dugout mad after his last at-bat — something the team doesn’t mind as long as he keeps it within reason — but when it comes time to take the field again he needs to recenter himself.
“I feel like that’s what you have to do, if your hitting isn’t going the way you want it to one day, then just make up for it on your defense,” Henderson said. “Don’t allow them to make any hits that you can take away, and just make the routine plays for your pitcher.”
That, like everything else in this league, has come with a steep learning curve for him. In his first professional season, when he was just a fresh 18-year-old out of high school, he showed up to the stadium on off days. He wanted to hit, always on a mission to get better. His manager just laughed at him.
“Y’all don’t understand it yet,” he was told.
And he didn’t. But now he relishes his off days. He uses them as a rare time not to think about baseball, instead channeling some of that energy into video games or other activities, even though those are the rare times he’s told his competitiveness is too much. At the end of the off day, Henderson shifts back to the sport as he starts to go through the lineup for the next day.
The Orioles want him to keep growing like that, to keep finding healthy ways to channel his passion into his game.
“I’m ultra competitive, all the time,” Henderson said. “There’s times when I let emotions get the best of me. I feel like that’s the case for a lot of competitive guys in the sport and you have to learn to go through it and I feel like that’s what I’m doing.”