Anthony Villa stopped midsentence, eyes glued to the action on the field at Ed Smith Stadium during one of the last Orioles spring training games.

“Get it, Gunnar!” he yelled as Gunnar Henderson scooped a ground ball and threw it across the diamond to first to make the play, eliciting a fist pump from Villa.

These two have been together since 2020, when Henderson, then a fiery 19-year-old only a year removed from being drafted, and Villa, a 26-year-old who had recently retired from playing and was learning how to be a coach, worked together at the alternate training site when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of the minor league season.

They’ve grown up together, moving up levels and positions throughout the Orioles system. Henderson is now the reigning American League Rookie of the Year, while Villa, at 30, is the new head of player development for the top farm system in baseball.

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“To watch Gunnar right here, to think back to him being a 19-year-old kid at the alt site in 2020 and how much work he’s put in along the way and the maturity that’s come about is amazing,” Villa said. “It’s absolutely what it’s all about. It’s what us coaches live for.”

Villa is tasked with overseeing the development of the entire Orioles farm system, leading players, many of whom are only a few years younger than he is, from the Dominican Republic academy to Triple-A Norfolk.

He doesn’t have the decades of coaching experience that others in his position have. But he has something that might be an even bigger asset: an ability to connect easily with the players.

“You can relate to him,” Henderson said. “He is fresh out of the game, so he understands what you are going through. It’s cool having him. He’s had the experience [and] he can help guide me along the way.”

Before he turned his focus to helping the next generation reach the major leagues, Villa had his own aspirations. He was drafted by the White Sox in 2016 and was three years into his minor league career when he started to realize that maybe his place wasn’t on the field.

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In 2019, Matt Blood, then the farm director of the Rangers, asked him to come to camp. If he made a team, he would go out with an affiliate and play another season. He didn’t, though, and Blood offered him a job coaching in the Arizona Fall League.

“I had so much fun in the minor leagues, and it seemed to just be this organic transition of, ‘Hey, I think I can be helpful at this. I think I can help the players and do some good and some right by the players’” Villa said.

Orioles prospect Coby Mayo once overcame an issue with his swing with help from Anthony Villa — and a hockey stick. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

After that season, Blood was hired by the Orioles and brought Villa, whom he saw as a rising coach, with him. When the pandemic hit, Villa was sent to the alternate training site to coach Henderson and the rest of the organization’s top prospects.

Villa had limited coaching experience at that point — just that one summer in rookie league and a few offseasons of hitting lessons to make extra cash. Henderson knew this and didn’t trust him right away. He respectfully asked his new coach just to throw batting practice as he wanted it done that day and not to offer his opinion.

It took, as Villa described it, sweat equity to get Henderson to trust him. The more Villa showed up and grinded it out with Henderson in the batting cages on those hot summer days, the more the rising star confided in him.

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“Over time, he started to understand that I was going to show up every day and support him and be there for him and, if he needed anything from me, I would do my best to help him out,” Villa said.

He had to do the same with Adley Rutschman that summer, and with Coby Mayo, Jordan Westburg and Heston Kjerstad the next year in the Florida Complex League in Sarasota, where Villa was a hitting coach.

Mayo was coming off a knee injury that season, and his swing path was off. Villa went home one day and spent the night researching ways to fix it. The next day, he came back with a hockey stick and told Mayo to start swinging with it.

Mayo didn’t understand — this was baseball, why would he need a hockey stick? But he complied because he saw how hard Villa was working to find a solution. Using the longer stick fixed Mayo’s path and gave him his pop back.

“It was a big, big help at the time,” Mayo said. “I didn’t really realize it, but it was a huge help.”

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As the Orioles’ top prospects moved up and became more established, so did Villa. He spent 2022 as the lower-level hitting coordinator and 2023 as overall minor league hitting coordinator.

His new role will require less one-on-one instruction as he takes on the farm system as a whole. He’ll be involved in every aspect, from hitting to pitching to fielding, ensuring each affiliate is following the fundamentals and philosophies of the organization. Villa’s focus will remain on establishing relationships as he travels to every affiliate, and he’ll keep a few of the tactics that have worked well for him.

In Sarasota, where international players and recent draft picks merge, he has the rookie level team do a show and tell of sorts. Each player introduces himself and explains his background. He also regularly travels to the Dominican Republic, meeting players as soon as they start their professional careers.

He doesn’t know what he wants to do next — he never imagined he would make it to this point this quickly. He does know that he wants to keep helping players’ dreams come true, just as he did with Henderson.

“If you had asked me each of the last couple of years, I would have told you that was my dream job,” Villa said. “At this moment in time, being the director of player development is my dream job. Being around player development and being involved in the minor leagues is absolutely the passion. It is so rewarding to watch these young men grow up and attack a lifelong goal of theirs.”

Danielle Allentuck covers the Orioles for The Baltimore Banner. She previously reported on the Rockies for the Denver Gazette and general sports assignments for The New York Times as part of its fellowship program. A Maryland native, Danielle grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from Ithaca College.

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