CHICAGO — Each time Gunnar Henderson stepped into the cage during what felt like one of the longest weeks of his life, he wanted to change something, hoping a tweak here or there would break him out of a slump that began with his 2021 promotion to High-A Aberdeen.
Henderson was searching for an answer at the plate. He was searching for a hit. And as his desperation for a knock grew more intense over the course of the week, Henderson made adjustment after adjustment.
“Thousands of things,” Henderson said. “One thing led to another, and I just kept getting further and further down the rabbit hole.”
And then one day it was over.
In the midst of all those adjustments at the plate, Henderson met with Kathryn Rowe, the Orioles’ minor league mental skills coordinator. She had one simple question, and it cut through all the noise in Henderson’s head, all the noise from the extra hacks he took in the cages.
“What got you here?” Rowe asked Henderson.
What got him here were those long days in Selma, Alabama, playing with his brothers on the field their dad, Allen, built behind their house. What got him here were all those repetitions, perfecting a left-handed swing that would lead him to becoming a second-round pick for the Orioles in 2019.
But beyond that, beyond the hard work, was the cool confidence. The belief in himself. The feeling that no matter if he struck out in one at-bat he could break out in the next. That got him to Aberdeen as much as anything else, and it was what broke Henderson out of his slump — and propelled him to the major leagues.
Now Henderson is here, although he finds himself in a similar situation. The beginning to Henderson’s first full season with the Orioles has been devoid of many hits. He finds himself looking back to what he did in Aberdeen — mostly what he did wrong — and thinks of Rowe’s comment.
This hasn’t gone according to plan. But, Henderson now knows, constantly looking to make tweaks might end up burying himself further.
“You get caught in trying to do more, because you’re wanting to get hits, obviously,” Henderson said. “But they’ll come, sooner rather than later.”
There have been sparks here and there for Henderson, including a double in the series finale against the Oakland Athletics last week. Those sparks might’ve lit into a flame Sunday against the White Sox, when Henderson recorded two hits and walked while not striking out in a start for the first time this year. Still, that rose his average to .178 through 14 games.
“For me, I feel like I’m already out of it,” Henderson said.
Oftentimes for a 21-year-old mired in a slump, the temptation to expand the zone can creep into at-bats and lead to poor swing decisions. Henderson has largely avoided that and, by extension, has walked 12 times — he’s still getting on base, even when not at his best.
But Henderson has still struck out 21 times, partly because of his overly patient approach. He’s not jumping on pitches he might be able to handle early, instead waiting and then finding himself behind in the count. Those 21 strikeouts leave Henderson in the bottom two percentile in baseball for punchout rate, and six of them have come on borderline pitches with the bat still on his shoulder.
“He’s trying to be a little too perfect at the plate right now for me, by not getting on some fastballs, especially, early in the count — fastballs he can do damage with,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I think he might be looking at one side of the plate or the other just a little too much. And that’s just a young player, [the game] speeding up on him a little bit.”
When Henderson arrived at the end of August, the game didn’t look as though it moved too quickly. He homered in his second at-bat at Progressive Field in Cleveland, a swing so hard that his helmet fell off. He finished his 34-game taste of major league baseball with a .259 average, went home to Selma, Alabama, and prepared for what life would be like in his first full campaign.
At home, he trained with his dad and his brothers. But during those sessions in the batting cage, and especially during the season, Henderson’s older brother Jackson stays away from baseball talk. There are enough expectations as it is. And on Henderson’s phone each day, his dad texts him videos of Henderson’s dog, Chief, as he learns to heel and improve his natural hunting instincts for quail season.
That’s what got Henderson here. And even though the beginning to this season has held its frustrating moments, Rowe’s advice rings in his ears.
“It’s really hard not to want to change something,” Henderson said. “But you just gotta really trust the process you go through and the work you put in is going to eventually get you out on the other side.”