‘That’s the kind of player to build a team around’: How Gunnar Henderson became an early AL MVP candidate


BALTIMORE — Clarke Schmidt made only one mistake Monday, and it wasn’t a bad pitch. The New York Yankees starter thought Gunnar Henderson looked awkward fouling off two straight knuckle-curves, so he threw the Baltimore Orioles leadoff hitter a third one. It was sharper than the previous two — not exactly where he wanted it, but close.

With Schmidt’s stuff, particularly crisp on this balmy night, close is usually good enough. Not against Henderson.

Henderson crushed the baseball 112.3 mph, 410 feet over the tall right-field wall at Camden Yards for a leadoff home run. The laser gave the Orioles a lead they wouldn’t fumble in their series opener against the rival Yankees, and it made history: The 22-year-old shortstop became the youngest player in Major League Baseball history with 10 home runs before the start of May.

“That’s the kind of player,” Schmidt said, “to build a team around.”

For several years, baseball talk in Baltimore was about the future. The farm system represented hope while the big league club floundered with rosters designed to lose. The Orioles endured three seasons with at least 108 losses. They went six consecutive years without a postseason berth.

Then last season, results finally flipped. They won 101 games and their first division title since 2014.

Henderson was in the thick of the turnaround, starring for the resurgent franchise en route to winning American League Rookie of the Year. The mustached, mulleted dynamo mirrors the Orioles’ trajectory over the past half-decade — from promising rebuild to ready for prime time to finally, perhaps, a perennial force.

“I want to ultimately be one of the best players to play the game,” Henderson said. “I feel like that’s how I’ve carried myself.”

Now the everyday shortstop — he split time primarily between shortstop and third base as a rookie — Henderson is garnering MVP buzz as the Orioles settle into their unfamiliar status as AL East favorites. They passed their first stiff test of the season this week, taking three of four games from the Yankees, their main competition in the AL East so far, in a series that featured an electricity at Camden Yards rarely generated this early in a season.

Henderson began the series with some thump, but pitching dominated the four-game set. The Orioles, whose bullpen limped into the series after blowing two games to the Oakland Athletics, held the Yankees to just six runs over the four days. Luis Gil carried the Yankees to their lone win, tossing a career-high 6⅓ innings in a 2-0 victory Wednesday. Other than that, the Orioles rolled.

“It’s still early,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde cautioned after the Orioles’ series-closing 7-2 win Thursday.

It was the O’s 16th straight series win against an AL East foe, a date that stretches back more than a year. It’s why this year, even coming off a disappointing Division Series sweep at the hands of the Texas Rangers last fall, expectations are different in Baltimore.

The Orioles were among the preseason favorites to win the World Series. They’re first in their division, with the best record in the American League. The O’s lead the majors in home runs — by seven — and rank second in runs. The pitching staff this week received reinforcements when starters Kyle Bradish and John Means were activated from the injured list. Bradish, fourth in AL Cy Young voting in 2023, made his season debut Thursday, holding the Yankees to one run over 4⅔ innings.

There are still players to develop and prospects to incorporate at the major league level. But after years building to this point, to annual contention, they have a chance to bring the franchise’s first championship to Baltimore since 1983.

“The future is now,” Orioles reliever Danny Coulombe said. “We’re in our window already.”

Adley Rutschman, who joined the big league club in 2022, is now one of the sport’s premier catchers. Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser — both under 26 — have excelled. The lineup is so deep that Heston Kjerstad, a top-100 prospect, has mostly been stuck on the bench since mashing his way to a promotion on April 23. Then there’s Jackson Holliday, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the sport, back in Triple-A — for now — after a rough big league introduction.

Coulombe, at 34 the third-oldest member of the Orioles, recalled looking around during spring training and marveling at the nameplates above the lockers.

“I remember being like, ‘There is so much talent in this organization,'” Coulombe said. “It’s a lot. Gunnar, obviously, is probably the best one. It’s hard to deny that.”

The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Coulombe, a left-hander, in the 25th round in 2012. The Dodgers’ first-round pick that year was a high school shortstop named Corey Seager. Henderson, Coulombe said, reminds him of Seager — but with speed. A big, left-handed hitter. The drive, the preparation. The way the game looks so easy to him.

Henderson’s other teammates see it too.

“He always wants to improve and that’s what separates one ballplayer from another — a star from a regular player,” Orioles veteran infielder Jorge Mateo said in Spanish. “To me, he’s a star already. And I know he’s going to keep improving.”

Henderson’s rise wasn’t linear. A year ago, he was scuffling in his first extended stint as a major leaguer. He slashed .201/.332/.370 over the season’s first two months, then the 2019 second-round draft pick turned it around in June. Henderson finished the season batting .255 with 28 home runs and an .814 OPS.

“It’s like, got to go up there and you got to trick yourself into having that self-confidence because you just go through it every single day and it really beats you down mentally,” Henderson said. “It’s definitely tough.”

There’s been no slow start to overcome this year. On Friday, Henderson — who slashed .291/.356/.624 in March/April — was named American League Player of the Month.

“I don’t know what tool he doesn’t have,” Hyde said. “He’s doing a little bit of everything, and he’s got the physical ability and the mental ability to be as good as there can be.”

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