There’s a controlled fury to the way Gunnar Henderson hits a baseball, with a swing that’s at once smooth and explosive, his body seemingly doing its best to harness his sheer talent and potential.

The same can be said of the way he walked Sunday, the first in a high-leverage, bases-loaded situation in the second inning and later in an attempt to start a fifth-inning rally. If one can walk emphatically, Henderson does it, rocking into each pitch with intent to swing and recoiling when he decides not to.

And, if Henderson can walk as often as he did this weekend, there’s no telling just how high the reigning AL Rookie of the Year’s ceiling can be.

“He’s just continuing to improve,” manager Brandon Hyde said.

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Henderson slides safely into third base Thursday during the Orioles’ win on opening day. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

That was clear in nearly everything Henderson did over the first series of the season. He walked and singled Thursday, homered as part of a three-hit day Saturday with four batted balls at or over 105 mph, then walked twice Sunday. He sprinkled in elite defense at shortstop — his new permanent home on the diamond — throughout, adding to his value.

Henderson better harnessing his ability to get on base will do the same, enhancing what is already growing into one of the most feared offensive profiles in the game.

Henderson boasted elite swing decisions as he came up through the minors, particularly in 2022 when he became the game’s top prospect on his way to a major league debut at age 21. He walked in 15.7% of his plate appearances in 2022 between Bowie and Norfolk, with an 18% chase rate, and then walked 12.1% of the time in the majors to end that year while swinging at 20.3% of pitches he saw outside the strike zone.

His swing decisions worked against him as he struggled to begin 2023, as he was seemingly too selective and missing prime pitches to hit as a result. We know how that season ended. He was a Silver Slugger Award winner, finishing with 28 home runs and an .814 OPS.

Henderson rounds third base on his home run trot Saturday. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Henderson truly turned the corner from around June 1, with an .856 OPS and 23 home runs from that point on. He also, coincidentally or not, stopped walking. He walked 6.2% of the time, which considering the rest of his success, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but over the course of the season he swung at 27.3% of pitches outside the strike zone.

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Henderson still hit plenty, and he was aggressive on the pitches he felt he could drive. He also punished pitchers for attacking him with strikes, as evidenced by a .589 slugging percentage on pitches in the strike zone — 11th best among big leaguers with at least 400 plate appearances.

On a philosophical level, the Orioles’ hitting program prioritizes positive swing decisions and hard, elevated contact. On a practical level, Hyde believes his players are at their best when they’re taking mature, controlled at-bats and trying to pass the baton and sustain rallies that way. Henderson embodied the former Sunday, with the Angels being careful with the leadoff man even with the bases loaded.

Henderson throws to first base during the game on opening day. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Walks, though, aren’t the goal. Getting on base is a skill, and it’s one Henderson demonstrated on his rapid climb to the majors that he possesses.

Hyde batting him leadoff against both righties and lefties demonstrates his belief that Henderson can get on base as well, though they won’t be trying to get Henderson to be more passive or walk for the sake of it. His takes, be they ball one or ball four, will be with the intention of bringing pitchers back into the strike zone.

They won’t want to walk Henderson with the equally imposing Adley Rutschman batting behind him, putting runners on base for Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle as well.

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So they’ll have to throw him strikes. Henderson went below the strike zone for his first-inning home run Saturday, but he punished three other balls over the plate after that. Every walk he draws this year, every close pitch he lays off of, has the potential to give him many more pitches in the zone that he can drive.

Sometimes, envisioning how a 22-year-old blossoming superstar can improve borders on fanciful. Henderson demonstrated over the opening series that this particular expectation for him is a realistic one, and he did so emphatically.

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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