Kyle Gibson’s laugh was an apt first response when asked how impressive Gunnar Henderson has been this week, because the numbers the Orioles rookie infielder has posted are almost unbelievable.
“He’s on a heater right now, man,” the right-hander said, before noting how perhaps the most impressive portion of all of this is that Henderson never differed in his plan or approach. That can be an easy trap for a young player to fall into. He’s a 21-year-old with massive expectations. And while the beginning to his season was full of stops and starts, strikeouts and mishits, Henderson didn’t waver.
“He knows what type of hitter he is,” Gibson said, and Henderson showed the world what type of hitter he is during the best week of his career thus far.
Henderson earned American League Player of the Week honors for a week that included three home runs and a 10-for-19 stretch at the plate. All of a sudden, Henderson’s on-base-plus-slugging percentage eclipsed .800; at .804, he has the third-highest OPS on the team, leaving any thoughts of his slow start in the rearview.
This hasn’t been easy, though, for Henderson.
“It’s human nature, whenever you’re up here and struggling — especially your first full season — you feel like you have a little bit of self-doubt,” Henderson said.
He felt the self-doubt through the middle of May, when his batting average still sat at .170 and his power numbers were behind. But Henderson has experienced a tough stretch before while in the minor leagues, so he resisted the temptation to tinker, saw the light at the end of the tunnel and now has thoroughly burst out into the sun.
“I feel like over the last few weeks the confidence started to grow,” Henderson said. “I really got my feet up under me and now I know the player I am and what I can do.”
Part of his turnaround is due to the fact his front foot is more on time when he strides. That caused him to whiff on more pitches earlier in the season or make weak contact rather than hard contact.
Since May 23, when the first signs of Henderson’s breakthrough were apparent, Henderson’s hard-hit percentage has risen to 54.3% and his weighted runs created plus — a measure that adjusts for external factors to create a league average of 100 — is 211. That means Henderson is 111% above league average at the plate over his last 15 games.
He’s utilizing the opposite field more, too. Of his 13 hits since May 30, five of them have gone to center field or left field, showing that he’s not jumping out at the ball. He can flash opposite-field power, such as when he blasted a two-run shot last week to left against the Milwaukee Brewers.
“Did some damage going the opposite way on the road trip,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He’s got a really nice approach when he’s thinking middle of the field and staying on the baseball. He’s so strong and has so much bat speed and coverage that good things happen.”
Henderson drove in three RBIs during a three-game series in New York against the Yankees last month, then slowly — and then all at once — turned his plate production into overdrive.
Last week, Henderson hit the go-ahead home run in a critical game against the Brewers to avoid a sweep. On Sunday, he extended the lead with what could be the longest homer to reach Eutaw Street in the history of Camden Yards.
After the lows Henderson experienced early this season, the highs of the last week are all the more memorable.
“I know my swing pretty well, so once I started to figure out something in the cage, it started to grow,” Henderson said. “And then in the game, was hitting the ball hard but right to people. But that just helps, overall. And having that consistent work and making progress in the cage, it felt like that was boosting the confidence a little bit, knowing the work I’m putting in is paying off. It’s been coming around.”
Gibson knows the urge to change things early in one’s career is a hard one to resist. In 2011, Gibson altered his delivery in an attempt to push his way through the minor leagues. Three months later, he said, he wound up requiring Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
“It’s tough, because it’s a results-driven game, right?” Gibson said. “We all know that if we don’t get the results we’re supposed to get, we have a chance to get sent down.”
For Henderson to avoid that urge, then, is all the more impressive. And his results of late only reinforce that patience for Henderson from the Orioles was the right call.