For the second straight year, a rookie has been named the best player on the Orioles.
Gunnar Henderson, at just 22 years old, was announced as the Most Valuable Oriole on Saturday, as local media recognized the young star who helped propel Baltimore atop the American League.
Before 2022, only two rookies had been named MVO in Orioles history dating back to 1954. Now, Baltimore’s rebuild has paid off, as Henderson follows Adley Rutschman, who won the award last year, as rookie MVOs.
“The history of the O’s, being able to be up there with all those guys like Ripken, Robinson, the list goes on, it’s really special,” Henderson said. “To do it in the first year is really awesome as well.”
The two former No. 1 overall prospects winning the award is further proof — if any was needed — that the Orioles’ youth movement has arrived and is thriving. Rutschman and Henderson are the two best position players on the best team in the AL more than four years after Baltimore used its first two draft picks in 2019 to select the college catcher and the high school infielder.
“That was pretty awesome,” said Dave Jennings, Henderson’s signing scout who also won the Orioles’ Jim Russo Scout of the Year Award on Saturday. “Gunnar’s just been so exciting. Seeing him win that was just outstanding, no question.”
Earlier this season, it appeared the race for MVO would be a tight one, as the balanced Orioles emerged thanks to contributions from almost every corner of their roster. Others to receive at least one top-three vote were: Rutschman, closer Félix Bautista, starting pitcher Kyle Bradish, slugger Anthony Santander and first baseman Ryan O’Hearn.
“It’s a testament to our team and just how well we all play together and how well our lineup fits together,” Henderson said about the large number of viable candidates. “We go out there, and it seems like it’s somebody else every night. To be able to have that, especially going into the postseason, is going to be huge for us.
However, as summer began to give way to fall, it became more likely that Henderson was the choice.
Henderson, who debuted in August 2022 but maintained his rookie eligibility for 2023, overcame a slow first six weeks of the season and blossomed into the type of player the Orioles’ front office and coaching staff believed he could be.
With two games remaining in the regular season, Henderson is slashing .257/.326/.492 — good for an .818 OPS that ranks second on the team. He’s tied with Santander for the team lead in homers with 28 and second to the switch-hitter in RBIs with 82.
He said his ability to grow during his early struggles is why he was able to make it to the other side thriving.
“I had some success last year when I got called up, so I knew that I could do it,” he said. “It was just a matter of when this year. It’s obviously not how you want to start the year like that, but everybody goes through it. … I was glad to be able to go through it and learn how to go through it.”
But Henderson’s value goes far beyond the batter’s box.
He’s been a plus defender at both third base and shortstop, splitting his first full big league season evenly between the two positions. He ranks in the top 25% of Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, and his nine defensive runs saved at the shortstop position ranks third in the AL.
He’s also been perhaps the Orioles’ most aggressive base runner, at times turning singles into doubles and doubles into triples. He led the team with nine triples (only two MLB players have more) and also stole 10 bases.
Put the whole package together, and Henderson’s wins above replacement on Baseball-Reference is 6.2 — the Orioles’ first six-win player since Jonathan Schoop in 2017.
No other Oriole on the 2023 team has more than 4.8 WAR.
“I think Gunnar’s obviously a clear choice,” pitcher Tyler Wells said. “I think that there’s a lot of guys in here that are extremely deserving. The reason I say ‘clear’ is because of the way that he plays the game. He is all out, and he never doesn’t play 100% every single day that he gets the opportunity. It doesn’t matter the situation, doesn’t matter the circumstances of the game, doesn’t matter how big of a moment or how small of a moment — he’s always out there to give 110%. You see that in the field, you see that in the batter’s box, you see that running the bases.
“All around that guy gives so much heart to the team, and it’s a big reason why we’ve had our success this year.”
Henderson, who joins Gregg Olson (1989), Rodrigo López (2002) and Rutschman (2022) as rookies to win MVO, will likely receive more hardware this fall. He opened the season as the favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award, but his odds from Vegas sportsbooks dipped after he hit .170 through May 12. He later re-established himself as the front-runner and is now a shoo-in to become the first Oriole to win the award since Olson in 1989.
He could also receive AL Most Valuable Player votes.
Only eight players in the majors, four of whom play in the AL, have a higher WAR than Henderson. That list, one that includes some of the biggest stars in the sport, is: Los Angeles Angels two-way wonder Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts, Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole, Braves first baseman Matt Olson, Texas Rangers infielder Marcus Semien and Rangers shortstop Corey Seager.
While his value in the aggregate is impressive, it’s the individual moments that made Henderson the MVO.
In June, the month he broke out as the AL Player of the Month, he walloped his first home run onto Eutaw Street. With a projected distance of 462 feet, according to Statcast tracking data, it was the farthest long ball ever hit onto Eutaw Street.
June was great, but the best game of his career (at that time) came in early July. A week after turning 22, Henderson opened a game at Yankee Stadium 4-for-4 with two home runs to lead the Orioles to a 14-1 win. With a hit in each of the game’s first four frames and two homers, he became just the second major leaguer to do so since 1984.
He kept it rolling into August with the best game of his career thus far — one that sparked a friendly debate among teammates and fans.
Henderson was a single away from recording the eighth cycle in Orioles history when he stepped to the plate during the eighth inning against the Oakland Athletics on Aug. 18. After roping a double down the right field line, he chose to sprint to second for his fourth extra-base hit — two doubles, a triple and a home run — rather than remain at first for the cycle. He received playful jeers from teammates but praise from his manager.
“Gunnar plays the game at one speed, and that’s hard,” Brandon Hyde said after that game. “And that’s the right way.”
Henderson said it’s difficult to wrap his head around his 2023 season of being the best player on a 100-win team. He also hopes this year isn’t the last time that’s the case.
“I’m sure the day that we retire and we can look back at this season to see how rare it is will be really cool,” he said. “Just kind of hard to put it into words because being our first year, this is what we’re going to expect for years to come.”