To have envisioned this winter that the Orioles would start the season as well as they have, a Rookie of the Year-caliber performance for Gunnar Henderson almost certainly would have been part of the equation.
So far, Baltimore’s winning start has come without that. The 22-year-old Henderson, who entered the season as baseball’s top prospect, began May batting .189 with a .659 OPS. His superlative plate discipline means he’s getting on base at a decent clip, but Henderson broadly is struggling to make an impact offensively.
Henderson is one of the youngest players in the majors, and some kind of adjustment period was expected. How it’s actually playing out is a fascinating look at some of the derivative impacts of the Orioles’ swing decision emphasis and perhaps what happens when it’s applied too liberally.
Considering Henderson is still hitting the ball hard — he has a league-average hard-hit rate of 40% and his average exit velocity of 91.3 mph is third-best among qualifiers on the team and in the 79th percentile of the league — there’s no case to be made that his talent has diminished at all.
What it seems to come down to for Henderson — and manager Brandon Hyde said as much last month — is what he’s swinging at and, more crucially, what he’s not.
League-wide this season, MLB hitters are swinging at 46.8% of pitches overall, and 66.4% of pitches in the strike zone, according to MLB Statcast Data from BaseballSavant.com. (All stats through Monday’s games.) Henderson is at 37.3% overall and 57.1% of pitches in the zone, which on its own isn’t a bad thing. His selectivity is being rewarded by walks, and part of the value of not chasing pitches is meant to be forcing pitchers to come back over the plate so hitters can do damage on good pitches.
So far, that part has been there for Henderson, too, though there’s room for improvement. On pitches over the heart of the plate, he’s batting .345 with a .655 slugging percentage (two home runs and three doubles), with an average exit velocity of 96.3 mph. His slugging percentage on such pitches is 75th among the 214 players who have seen at least 300 pitches this season, putting him right at the border of the top third of regulars in that category. He’s seen 94 such pitches, swung at 67 of them and whiffed on just 11 of them. From a straight swing/take perspective, he’s right around league-average, swinging at 71% of those pitches when the league-average is 72%.
It stands to reason he could swing more often at those pitches, especially early in the count. The Orioles’ swing decision emphasis is based on the idea that elite hitters do most of their swinging at these pitches over the heart of the plate because they’re the pitches they can drive.
On the first or second pitch of his at-bats, he’s swung at 32 of 52 pitches over the heart of the plate (61.5%), and just one of his five extra-base hits — a double — has come on those hacks. He’s not even really whiffing on those pitches that often. He’s just not driving them and doing the kind of damage a top hitter is expected to in those situations. When he gets ahead in the count, he’s attacking pitches over the heart of the plate often and has a double and homer to show for it, so again, the talent to do so is still there.
But better capitalizing on those early-count pitches could prevent Henderson from getting into challenging spots deeper into counts where pitchers don’t have to come back over the plate, and can work on the margins of the strike zone — a space where he’s been operating at a disadvantage this year.
The area outside the heart of the zone — the shadow — covers pitches both inside and outside the edge of the traditional strike zone. There, Henderson has seen 160 pitches and swung at 58 — just 36% — where the league average is 53%. A league-average hitter is perhaps not one to be emulated in such situations, but Henderson is the league’s most passive hitter on those pitches. No one has seen at least 150 and swung less often at them than him.
That’s not a recipe for disaster universally. The next two names on the list — Max Muncy and LaMonte Wade Jr. — are off to unreal starts with 1.050 and 1.019 OPS, respectively. Mookie Betts and Mike Trout are in the top-20, and Adley Rutschman — the gold standard for swing decisions in the Orioles’ system — is at 43.4%.
The difference, it seems, comes with two strikes. Henderson swings at less than half of these borderline pitches he sees with two strikes — 46.8%, and 19 of his 29 strikeouts have come on pitches in this area with eight looking and 11 swinging. He also has no hits with two strikes on shadow pitches. By comparison, Rutschman has 11 — including 10 singles — as he’s protecting those fringe pitches and taking what he’s given to get on base.
In all counts, Henderson has four singles on pitches in the shadow zone, and has been rewarded with six walks by taking such pitches with three balls. On clear balls, his batting eye is paying off. That basically leaves this fringe area as the one Henderson needs to protect against in order to ramp up his production.
Attacking pitches earlier in the count is one way to do that. Of the 214 big leaguers who have seen at least 300 pitches so far this season, Henderson’s slugging percentage on the first two pitches of his at-bats (.400) ranks 175th, with his expected slugging percentage based on quality of contact (.381) even lower at 197.
Filter just pitches in the heart of the plate, and he’s in those same ranges. And considering that’s when Henderson gets a majority of his pitches in the big part of the plate, he’d be wise to attack them. If pitchers know they can get away with them early and then locate on the edges of the zone to put Henderson in a bind later in counts, they won’t come back to the middle as his at-bats progress.
Similarly, Henderson hasn’t taken advantage of the favorable counts his selectiveness has earned him. He has a .337 expected slugging percentage when ahead in the count, compared to the league average of .509. His weighted on-base average (wOBA) and expected weighted on-base average (xWOBA) are .405 and .413, thanks to his elite walk rate, but the lack of power in those spots means he’s still below the league-average wOBA of .432.
None of this is chronic, and all of it is addressable. The reason Henderson climbed to the majors so quickly and became the game’s top prospect while doing so was because of these same swing decisions, which are being challenged by the higher quality of pitches and command he’s encountering now in the majors.
In addition to better learning to defend the edges of the strike zone late in counts, Henderson can save himself that hassle by doing more damage on pitches over the plate early in the count. I imagine he and the Orioles know he’s capable of that. It’s an easy thing to suggest from behind a computer screen, but if there’s a clear way for Henderson out of this early-season swoon, this seems like the place to start.