Stephen Clements waited until the stands cleared, until the dozens of scouts from Major League Baseball teams left the field at John T. Morgan Academy in Selma, Alabama, before the coach called for Gunnar Henderson to join him.
They sat in the visiting dugout. Clements had watched another vintage Henderson game — the kind of performance that, even when the prospect didn’t connect as cleanly with the baseball as he might’ve liked, still resulted in loud hits around the park. But there was something that stood out to Clements that passed by the 30 to 40 MLB onlookers. It came on Henderson’s towering fly ball into the gap.
Henderson had stopped at second base.
The high school senior usually ran the bases at full speed, and Clements, coaching third, would have to rein him back from an inside-the-park home run. He generally had to remind Henderson that the breakneck pace at which he played was admirable but not always wise, particularly in a blowout. That, just once, he could take it easy.
Henderson never really listened. It wasn’t in him to throttle back. He has one speed — all out — and that’s what made him such a tantalizing prospect for MLB organizations. It’s what led Henderson to be voted the unanimous winner the American League Rookie of the Year award just five years later, as a 22-year-old phenom.
Instead, just that once, Henderson strode into second base with a standup double.
“You saw that?” Clements remembers Henderson asking the coach, when it was pointed out to him that he braked when he otherwise flies. In the dugout, by themselves, away from the onlookers with their clipboards and their opinions on every step Henderson took, the 17-year-old admitted it.
“I just feel there’s so much pressure on me right now,” Henderson told Clements. “That every ball I hit is supposed to be over 400 feet over in the football field, and I’ve made a few outs and I just feel the world’s coming down.”
There. It was out.
It was that one double that showed any hint of the pressure that had built around Henderson, and how the even-keeled stoic, the mature-beyond-his-years athlete, not only noticed it but felt it.
That was the only time Clements ever saw Henderson waver, and even then Henderson regrouped in short order. The few outs he pounded right at defenders midway through his senior year gave way to a dominant final stretch, one that solidified his position as a second-round choice of the Orioles in the 2019 draft.
“He felt like he had to do more than he had to do,” Clements said. “I was like, ‘No, buddy, you’ve gotta do nothing. You just keep being Gunnar.’”
In the years since that discussion midway through Henderson’s senior year, Gunnar has kept being Gunnar.
He joined the Orioles organization at its nadir and quickly became a centerpiece of its rise, vaulting through the ranks of the minor leagues to be named baseball’s top prospect. He arrived in Baltimore with a bang last year, beginning his career with a helmet-losing homer that might’ve reached the football field if it had been at John T. Morgan Academy rather than Cleveland’s Progressive Field.
And, in his first full season with the Orioles, Henderson solidified his stardom. He has a chance to become Baltimore’s first AL Rookie of the Year since 1989.
Throughout Henderson’s life, there have been hints this was possible. His father, Allen, remembers Henderson’s near-constant playing on the field behind their home alongside his brothers, Jackson and Cade. Clements saw how younger players, including his own son, followed Henderson around the field, mimicking each of the rising star’s actions. Dave Jennings, the Orioles area scout credited with signing Henderson, recalls watching Henderson’s athleticism shine through in basketball as well as baseball.
Now he’s here. Now he’s regarded as the best rookie in the American League.
“I always thought he was special, that he could do some things that other high school guys that I’ve scouted weren’t doing,” Jennings said. “Thought for sure he’d get there at some point. I don’t know if 22 was when I thought he would do it. But there was always a sign he was going to be a guy.”
To pretend it was easy, though, would be a disservice to Henderson’s journey.
That cutting fastball out of Kyle Bradish’s hand fooled him again.
Henderson had never seen anything like it. The pitch looked destined for his barrel, then it lunged inward, close to Henderson’s hands, and each hack was an uncomfortable reminder that Henderson was momentarily outside his depth. He’d break his bat on that pitch or, if he was luckier, he’d get just enough wood on it to induce a groundout.
He was a 19-year-old, surrounded by players on the cusp of reaching the majors or those who already had arrived. They included Cedric Mullins, Ramón Urías, D.J. Stewart and Adley Rutschman. There was a stable of pitchers with offerings at a level Henderson had never seen.
And each day, after individual training drills, Henderson stepped into the box for a test.
“For a while, it was sink or swim,” said Ryan Fuller, then the Orioles’ upper-level minor league hitting coordinator. “And he did a lot of sinking.”
Henderson faltered, in a more noticeable manner than when he stopped at second base two years earlier as a high school senior. Fuller, Anthony Villa and Buck Britton — all part of the coaching staff in Bowie at the 2020 alternate training site because the coronavirus forced the cancellation of the minor league season — reasoned with Henderson to be realistic.
He was against players far older, with more experience. To his coaches, the struggles early in Henderson’s time at the alternate site were acceptable, even expected. They tried telling Henderson just that.
“He did not want to hear it. He didn’t care,” Fuller said. “If there’s a guy on the mound, he wants to be better than them.”
Baltimore’s hitting coaches have a term they like to use: calibrating. When a player needs to work on a specific offering, they calibrate his swing to better cover a swing path that will allow him to handle it.
For Bradish’s cutter, that meant adjusting Henderson’s eye to sit on a pitch that starts inside already (it’ll only keep cutting against a left-handed hitter). It meant helping Henderson draw his hands closer to his body on his swing to allow the barrel to make better contact. And it meant, whenever Henderson saw the cutter begin on the outside part of the plate, he should unleash his A swing.
By the end of the summer at the alternate site, Henderson’s rapid improvement became a template for others to follow. He rifled a cutter back through the middle for a single in one test, and now Baltimore’s minor league hitting coordinators use Henderson’s highlights as an example for other players in the organization.
“We’re using the video for our minor leaguers of Gunnar breaking bats off Kyle Bradish,” Fuller said, “and then we say, ‘Hey, what you guys are going to do, the growth mindset we’re going to use, this is what’s going to happen sooner or later.’ And it’s Gunnar hitting one of those cutters really hard on a line.”
The experience that summer when Henderson was 19 is why Fuller — now the co-hitting coach for the Orioles — isn’t surprised by the heights Henderson reached in 2023. It’s similar to how Clements felt watching Henderson regroup amid the pressure that comes from stands full of scouts.
Sure, Henderson would waver. He’d also bounce back with a determination that was unquestionable. And it’s that ethos that drove him through the minor leagues, to Baltimore, and now to the upper echelons of the game.
Clements had seen the look before.
Henderson shook his head, internalizing any annoyance at the strike call while analyzing how to avoid that situation in the future, and then looked down at his cleats.
He had done it in high school, too, always looking down for that brief moment. One bad swing during a batting practice session? Glance down. A call that didn’t go his way? There were his cleats.
Allen Henderson, hypothesizing, said perhaps his son does it because he’d rather channel his energy toward something other than barking at an umpire. Clements figured it’s Henderson’s way to reset, just for a moment, with a shuffle of the cleats.
Early in the year, that glance down was nearly an every-at-bat occurrence. Henderson entered 2023 as a strong Rookie of the Year candidate, predicted to build on the 34 games he played late in 2022, when he hit .259 with a .788 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
But with a wrist injury in spring training and then a slow start to the campaign — Henderson’s average sat at .170 on May 12, with 37 strikeouts in 33 games — there were questions whether Henderson would reach the lofty targets he and others set.
Those questions never rattled inside Henderson’s mind.
“The determination part of it has always been there,” his father said. “Even at a young age. So that didn’t surprise me that he was pretty driven to do well. I felt like, between his determination and the hitting coaches that they have, they’d eventually work it out.”
On May 13, Henderson homered. He’d embark on a six-game hitting streak, then a four-game streak, and before long his average creeped up. All the while, Henderson impressed with his exit velocity, even if the results were intermittent. Henderson hit balls at 95 mph or harder 52% of the time — just behind the Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez and before the Angels’ Mike Trout for 14th best in baseball.
In April, in the midst of Henderson’s slow start, he emphasized how his slump at High-A Aberdeen in 2021 helped prepare him for another one. In that instance, Henderson got away from the basics and sought adjustment after adjustment, and “one thing led to another, and I just kept getting further and further down the rabbit hole,” Henderson said.
He knew better in 2023. He looked to his cleats, cleared his mind and went on a tear throughout the remainder of the year; excluding his first 33 games, Henderson hit .274 with an .849 OPS in his final 117 appearances. In total, Henderson finished with an .814 OPS and earned the MLB Players’ Association Outstanding Rookie award, a precursor to the official Rookie of the Year honor.
“You knew this kid was going to be special,” Clements said. “I knew the sky was the limit. But then you’re going, ‘Dang, he’s fixing to be American League Rookie of the Year.’ That’s crazy.”
Even so, the season didn’t come as a total surprise. Henderson’s aim has always been high. In a preseason meeting in 2021, Fuller remembers Henderson telling him his goal was to reach Double-A by the end of year. He reached Bowie. And in 2022 Henderson told Fuller he pictured himself reaching the majors before the season finished. He accomplished that, too.
At first, Fuller thought rising three minor league levels in his first full season playing at an affiliate was an overly ambitious goal. But, in the same way he watched Henderson put his mind to solving Bradish’s cutter, Fuller learned Henderson doesn’t speak for the sake of bravado. He’s serious, and his work ethic backs it up.
Entering 2023, then, it came as little shock that Henderson once more shot for the stars. He wanted the Rookie of the Year award. Now he has it.
“His goals are audacious,” Fuller said, “but they’re real.”