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Gunnar Henderson breaking out for Orioles in June

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Even the best prospects in baseball typically go through their share of growing pains in the Majors. Many eventually find their way. Some don’t. Though it remains to be seen whether Gunnar Henderson will live up to his immense potential and become a franchise cornerstone for the Orioles, the 21-year-old appears to be heading in the right direction after a chilly start to his rookie season.

To say the least, expectations were massive for the youngster entering the 2023 campaign. Henderson hit the ground running after making his MLB debut late in 2022, then earned the No. 1 overall ranking on MLB Pipeline’s preseason Top 100 prospects list. 

He proceeded to hit just .192 with four homers and a .354 slugging percentage over his first 42 games in 2023.

However, Henderson’s hitting talent has started to shine through lately — since May 23, he’s posted a .324/.370/.632 slash with six homers and 18 RBIs in 20 games. He has been one of MLB’s hottest hitters since the calendar flipped to June, notching a 1.119 OPS with five homers in 46 plate appearances.

In fact, just about the only thing that has been able to slow down Henderson in June has been a stomach bug, which kept him out of the lineup Sunday.

On Tuesday, Baltimore will open up a two-game series at Tropicana Field against the first-place Rays, who lead the O’s by five games in the AL East. Though it’s uncertain if Henderson will be back in the lineup Tuesday, the O’s chances of gaining ground on Tampa Bay in the division could hinge on the rookie’s performance the rest of the way.

Beyond the outstanding surface-level stats, there are signs that Henderson is getting more comfortable in the batter’s box as he gains more experience against Major League arms. Here’s what we’ve seen from the infielder this month. (All stats below are through Sunday.)

He’s being more aggressive … but whiffing and striking out less

Over the first two months of 2023, Henderson was among the least aggressive hitters in the game, posting the 25th lowest swing rate (39.9%) among the 238 hitters who saw at least 500 pitches in that span. When he did swing, he didn’t make consistent contact, recording a 32.3% whiff rate (misses/swings) that was the 20th highest in MLB (min. 300 swings).

As a result, only 52.7% of Henderson’s plate appearances through May 31 resulted in a batted ball, while just 25% of them ended with hard contact (95+ mph exit velocity) despite his solid 47.9% hard-hit rate (the percentage of batted balls resulting in hard contact). Henderson did walk a lot (15.8% BB-rate) in that time, but he also struck out a ton (31% K-rate).

Henderson has recalibrated his approach this month, swinging more (45.6%) but whiffing (19.5%) and striking out (21.7%) less. He’s also walking less frequently in June (4.3%), but it hasn’t mattered much because he’s doing more damage with the bat.

His expected wOBA, which is based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks, is an elite .428 in June, up from .325 previously. Nearly 74% of Henderson’s plate appearances this month have ended with a ball in play, while more than 41% of his PAs have ended with hard contact.

He’s absolutely mashing the pitches he’s supposed to hit

It sounds simple, but one of the reasons Henderson’s production has spiked in June is that he’s performed better when pitchers have given him something to hit.

Over the first two months, Henderson posted a .257 batting average with a .459 slugging percentage on pitches in the strike zone, swinging at these pitches 58.7% of the time and whiffing on 24.2% of his swings.

It’s been a different story in June, with Henderson recording a .464 average and .929 slugging percentage on in-zone pitches. His zone-swing rate this month is 66.3%, and he’s whiffed on a miniscule 15.1% of these swings.

Henderson has been especially potent on pitches in the heart of the zone this month, notching a .524 average while slugging 1.143. Again, he’s been more aggressive attacking these pitches, swinging 84.2% of the time (72.5% through May 31).

He’s figuring out breaking balls

You typically don’t become a top prospect without being able to hit the fastball, but getting to the Majors and having to face MLB-level breaking stuff has caused trouble for many a young hitter.

That certainly was the case for Henderson prior to June, even going back to last year.

Entering this month, Henderson had gone 9-for-76 (.118) with three homers in his career against breaking pitches, which include curveballs, sliders, sweepers and slurves.

However, over 12 games in June, Henderson has posted a .438 average (7-for-16) with two homers against breakers.

He’s feasted when pitchers have dared to throw him a breaking ball in the strike zone this month, swinging at 75% of them and collecting seven hits in 11 at-bats (.636 BA).

He’s hitting for power to all fields

Henderson turned heads when he blasted a 462-foot homer to right field off the Royals’ Jackson Kowar on June 11, crushing the longest homer to land on Eutaw Street during a game in the 31-year history of Camden Yards. It was one of two pull-side home runs the left-handed batter has hit this month.

Two days later, Henderson hit his first career grand slam, hammering a cutter from Blue Jays right-hander Chris Bassitt and sending it 387 feet to left-center field. It was the second of two straightaway homers for Henderson in June.

Earlier in the month, Henderson hit one out down the left-field line in Milwaukee, putting an impressive swing on Brewers reliever Peter Strzelecki’s four-seam fastball up and off the outside corner and hitting it 365 feet.

The infielder has been showing off his power to all fields all month long, slugging .722 on pulled batted balls, 1.222 on balls hit straightaway and 1.143 on balls to the opposite field.

Henderson is actually hitting the ball straightaway and to the opposite field less frequently in June, as his pull rate has increased dramatically, but he’s doing far more damage on non-pulled balls than he did previously.

Obviously, this is a small sample size, and pitchers may soon start to adjust to exploit Henderson’s newfound aggressiveness, at which point it will be up to the hitter to counter. But these are nonetheless encouraging signs from a supremely talented youngster only 96 games into his big league tenure.

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