2023 was a season to remember for both the Baltimore Orioles and their rookie sensation Gunnar Henderson. Henderson made his Major League debut in August 2022 and was the consensus number one prospect in all of baseball when he made his debut on a Wednesday night in Cleveland. Of course, Henderson burst onto the scene when he hit a solo home run in his second career plate appearance off of Triston McKenzie.
Henderson went 2-for-4 in the game as the Orioles won 4-0 over the Guardians. To finish 2022, Henderson had a 126 OPS+ in 34 games at the big league level with four home runs and 12 extra base hits as he mostly played third base with Jorge Mateo at shortstop and Rougned Odor at second base.
Needless to say, expectations were through the roof for Gunnar entering the 2023 season as he dominated every level of the minors and found immediate success in the big leagues as a 21-year-old.
Coming into the 2023 season, the expectation was for Henderson to be an everyday player in the left side of the infield and to be a top of the order bat to complement players like Adley Rutschman, Cedric Mullins, and Ryan Mountcastle. However, early struggles combined with the other-worldly April from Jorge Mateo seemed to change those plans a little bit. Anyways, let's look at Henderson's 2023 season holistically and assign a grade to his season.
How did Gunnar Henderson's 2023 season pan out?
As mentioned earlier, there were some legitimate concerns surrounding Gunnar Henderson through the end of May as it took him a while to get going offensively. The first month of the season was also his worst month as he hit below the Mendoza line at .189 with a .311 slugging percentage with only five extra base hits in 92 plate appearances. He also struck out 29 times in those 92 plate appearances with only 23 total bases accumulated in April.
May was not a whole lot kinder to Henderson as he slashed .213/.315/.425 and only started in 22 of the 27 games played that month which was another indicator of his struggles. Despite the low batting average, Henderson did find his power stroke in May with nine extra-base hits, including two triples and three home runs and 34 total bases over 92 plate appearances.
Gunnar also spent most of the first two months at third base with Jorge Mateo at shortstop and either Adam Frazier or Ramon Urias at second base. As a third baseman in 2023, Henderson struggled with a .213/.305/.406 slash line in 76 games with a 97 OPS+ and 77 OPS+ which essentially means that he was 23% worse than his average when he played third base.
Despite the offensive struggles, Henderson showed real promise as he was one of the most patient hitters in the league over the first two months of the season. In April, specifically, Gunnar drew 17 walks in 92 plate appearances and had an on-base percentage of .348 despite the .189 batting average and .311 slugging percentage.
He was slightly less patient in May but still had an impressive 13% walk rate with 12 walks in 92 plate appearances. Despite the early struggles, Henderson's ability to draw walks salvaged the first two months of his season and helped his breakout over the next couple of months.
Breakout Campaign: June through End of Season
Immediately following the end of May, Henderson broke out in a big way in June which propelled him to his strong rookie campaign and Rookie of the Year title. In only 20 games, Henderson slashed .320/.354/.640 in June with six home runs, 16 RBIs and 48 total bases in 79 plate appearances. This all accumulated to a 167 OPS+ that month and .994 OPS. The plate discipline did take a hit that month as he only drew four walks but the power surge more than made up for his declining discipline.
Despite the strong June, Henderson's two best offensive games of the season occurred later in the season. Once on July 6th in a 14-1 win over the Yankees and once on August 20th in a 12-1 win over the Athletics in Oakland where he finished a single shy of the cycle.
Following his strong June, Henderson spent much of July in the leadoff spot and was the leadoff hitter for the final game of a four-game set with the Evil Empire in the Bronx. The Yankees took the first two games of the series which included a July 4th win over the Orioles in which Kyle Gibson and Nick Vespi struggled against the Yankees offense in an 8-4 final.
That final game, however, the Orioles offense showed up early and often to blowout the Yankees and improve the O's record to 51-35. Gunnar Henderson led off the game with a boom as he sent a Luis Severino pitch over the left field wall to give the Orioles a 1-0 lead before most fans even had a chance to get seated.
After the O's offense chased Severino in the third inning, Henderson stepped up with two runners on base in the fourth inning and yanked a three-run homer off of Albert Abreu to give the Orioles a 12-0 lead which proved more than insurmountable for the Yankees. Along with the two home runs, Henderson also hit an RBI single off of Severino in the third inning which gave the O's a 5-0 lead and chased Severino from the game. On the night, Henderson went 4-for-7 with five RBIs, 10 total bases, and three runs scored.
Another notable performance for Henderson also occurred in a series finale on the road as the Orioles went into Oakland hoping for a three-game sweep of a bottom-feeding Athletics team. In this game, Henderson hit third in the lineup and was the designated hitter against a southpaw in JP Sears.
As mentioned earlier, Henderson finished the game 4-for-5 and was a single shy of hitting the O's second cycle of the season. Henderson hit his first double off JP Sears in the third inning with nobody out and Mountcastle on first. In the fourth inning, Henderson hit a triple which immediately followed a three-run homer from Ryan Mountcastle. After Sears was chased from the game, A's reliever Zach Neal pitched well until he faced Gunnar and gave up a solo home run to give the Orioles an 8-0 lead.
These two performances are a microcosm of Henderson's 2023 season where he truly dominated for portions of the season and emerged as the Orioles shortstop of the future even with the emergence and eventual debut of Jackson Holliday.
Given the expectations for Henderson, the first two months were quite dicey for Henderson and it seemed that the stage may be too big for the then-21-year-old. However, Henderson turned things around and then some as he emerged as the AL's best rookie over the final four months and a perennial top-of-the-order bat for a 100 win team.
Besides Corbin Carroll of the Diamondbacks, no other rookie was even close to as dominant as Henderson over the second half of the season and Gunnar was the deciding factor in several wins over the final stretch of the season. All this being said, Gunnar Henderson earns an A for his work in the 2023 season.