Both Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson have elite potential for the Orioles in the foreseeable future.
With the season wrapping up with only six games left on the schedule for the Baltimore Orioles, it is time to reflect on a season that most would consider wildly successful for a team that many projected to have another 100-loss season. It seems unlikely that the O’s will play any Postseason games in October which is disappointing given the chase the O’s saw themselves in after a successful summer.
Despite this, the Orioles have a bright future ahead of them as they were led by two rookies with unlimited potential in Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman. Both players were the consensus number one prospect in baseball before their respective call-ups earlier this season and they have both had successful seasons in Baltimore. There is no question that both players are centerpieces in the O’s future and both players have a bright future ahead, but one question remains that many fans have probably asked themselves: Who has the brighter future? I will attempt to answer this question in the following paragraphs.
The Case for Gunnar
Henderson was just recently named the Minor League Baseball Player of the Year by Baseball America as he scorched his way through Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk before forcing the O’s hand in calling him up on August 30th. Between those two levels, he hit .297/.416/.531 with 19 home runs in 112 games. He also flashed his speed with 22 stolen bases in 25 attempts as well as seven triples. The hot hitting continued in the majors as he has hit .266/.349/.479 with four home runs in 27 games thus far. This includes a home run in his Major League debut against Triston McKenzie and the Cleveland Guardians.
He has not found a consistent defensive position because Jorge Mateo and Ramon Urias are strong defensive players on the left side of the infield and the Orioles have been skeptical to keep Rougned Odor on the bench. In 24 starts, he has played third base 12 times, shortstop six times, second base three times as well as designated hitter three times. The O’s will likely want to find a consistent position for him next year and it seems that third base is the most likely spot with Mateo at short and Urias at second.
Simply put, Henderson is a stud. There is no glaring weakness in his game, and he is a true five-tool player at only 21 years old. According to Baseball Savant, he is in the 91st percentile for sprint speed which means he is a legitimate speedster at 29 feet per second. For context, that is only one-tenth of a foot per second slower than Byron Buxton who has been lauded for his speed throughout his career. This speed and proven stolen base ability in the minors add a layer to his game that many superstars do not have. Granted, he will slow down as he ages but for now, this is a huge commodity for Gunnar.
The combination of power, speed, and plate discipline are rare, but he has seemed to master all three already despite his tender age. I already mentioned his speed, but his power and plate discipline have made him a tough out throughout his career. In the Majors, he has had an impressive 11.3% walk rate as well as a 12.9% clip in Triple-A and 19.7% in Double-A this season. Of course, the minor league numbers are inflated by his fear factor as he was clearly the best hitter in the Baysox and Tides lineup throughout the season, and opposing pitchers were cautious with him. However, his discipline has shown in Baltimore with the high walk rate and his ability to wait for his pitch.
His power has also been a commodity as he has hit for a .213 isolated power in MLB this season with four homers and 11 extra-base hits in 106 plate appearances. Hitting from the left side is also an advantage given the new configurations of Camden Yards which is not favorable for right-handed hitters. Nothing better exemplifies Gunnar’s combination of power and plate discipline than his game this past Monday in Boston. In this game, Henderson drew three walks in his first three plate appearances before blasting a home run to deep center field in an area of Fenway Park that not many hitters are capable of hitting to. The Orioles won this game 14-8 and it was a great all-around game for the offense which collectively blasted five home runs off Boston pitching.
The Case for Adley
While Adley is not a five-tool 21-year-old like Gunnar, he is still an absolute stud in his own sense. Rutschman is a 24-year-old catcher who is a switch-hitter and great defensive player with a combination of power and plate discipline similar to Henderson. What makes Adley unique is his ability to hit and play defensively from the premier position on the field outside of the pitcher. Rutschman has proven an ability to develop relationships with his pitching staff and his framing abilities improves pitcher performance.
Earlier this season, I wrote an article in which I examined whether or not Adley is the best catcher in baseball. The fact that this argument even exists in his rookie season proves that he is a great player with a hell of a lot of potential. Given that his biggest strength that differentiates himself from Gunnar is his defensive abilities behind home plate, let’s take a further dive into this. The two main aspects of catcher defense are framing ability and pop time. Just as a quick overview, framing is the ability of the catcher to “steal” strikes for their pitcher by manipulating their glove subtly in such a way that is more likely to make the umpire call a strike. Pop time is the amount of time it takes for the catcher to get the ball out of his glove and to a base in a pickoff or stolen base attempt. Rutschman ranks in the 84th and 80th percentile amongst catchers in each of these categories, respectively. This combination of pop time and framing is rare, as I mentioned in my article linked above. One caveat to this is that framing may become irrelevant if robotic umpires are ever implemented but they will not be in 2023 and for now, this skill is still at a premium.
Plate discipline is another skill for Adley as he has a 13.3% walk rate in MLB this season and he kept his walk rate well above 11% at every level of the minors. He has drawn 59 walks in 444 plate appearances for the Orioles this season and his walk rate ranks him in the 95th percentile in the majors this season. His chase rate also ranks him in the 83rd percentile which means he does not take many bad swings at pitches outside the strike zone. On Thursday, Adley set the record for most doubles for a rookie in O’s history passing Cal Ripken Jr. with 33. This occurred despite him not being called up until a month-and-a-half into the season.
Who Has a Brighter Future?
As you can tell, both players have unbelievably bright futures. Both players are under 25 years old and in their first MLB season and have already shown to be two bright spots in the O’s lineup despite their young age. Both players are above-average defensive players with great plate discipline and power. The biggest factors helping Gunnar are his speed and age as he is three full years younger than Adley. For Adley, his ability as a catcher and elite plate discipline is his best factors. Both players keep the Orioles in good hands for at least the next six seasons and hopefully longer if the Angelos’ decide to open their pocketbook. If I had to pick one though, I would give Rutschman the slight edge because he will stick as a catcher for a long time and is an elite hitter who will make pitchers work for every out.