From pick 42 to soon-to-be All Star: The rise of Gunnar Henderson

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A front office executive recently called up video from Gunnar Henderson’s high school days in Alabama and showed the reel to a colleague who did not see Henderson as an amateur.

“Oh my god,” said the colleague, stunned by what he saw.

Henderson, likely to be named an All-Star for the first time tonight when starter selections are announced, is 23 years old and already considered to be one of the best in the majors. Just five years since Henderson was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles — and little more than a year since he was promoted to the big leagues — he is excelling at just about everything.

He has become a model of what a scout would hope for in a player — big and physical, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, but also fast and powerful. Given the force of what he does at the plate, he seems to be swinging a sledgehammer more than a bat, and when he runs the bases, there is an explosiveness to him; Henderson moves like an NFL safety about to cut down a wide receiver.

Only Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani have hit more home runs this season, and Henderson is already regarded as one of the game’s best defensive shortstops and best baserunners. When a staffer recently asked Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman about Henderson’s early dominance in his career, Rutschman turned and said, “It’s his world now. And we’re just living in it.”

Considering his staggering athleticism, his exceptional reputation for work and for his understated personality, you can understand why multiple teams have been asking a really simple but important question: How in the world did this baseball prodigy fall to the 42nd pick overall pick in the draft?

Baseball’s draft is an inexact science in which teams make their best educated guesses, hoping that their scouting reports, draft principles, data and projection systems result in good choices. But there are so many variables in play that inevitably, mistakes are made, leaving club staffers to wonder, through informal reviews: What didn’t we see in that player? This is what happened after Mike Trout fell to the 25th pick in the 2009 draft, with many teams focusing on the weakness of Trout’s competition in southern New Jersey rather than his unusual athleticism; within three years after those clubs passed on Trout, he was regarded as the best player in baseball.

Henderson smiled slightly over the weekend when asked how he thinks he fell to the 42nd pick in the draft. “I could see why — me just being from a small town,” he said.

Henderson attended Morgan Academy, in Selma, Alabama, a small town of 17,000 in the central part of the state. “It’s not the greatest high school baseball competition. I understand it on that end of things. … Just knowing the mentality that I have, I feel like I’m a very hard worker and try to be the best player I can be day in and day out. That’s what kind of separated me.”

Based on interviews and texts with evaluators around baseball, the answer behind Henderson’s fall is probably contained within that video that the team officials shared. Back in 2019, teams were concerned about what Henderson would do as a hitter, and they weren’t sure how he would develop as an athlete. Colton Cowser, a close friend of the Orioles’ shortstop, said that he had recently seen video of Henderson as a high school player. “He doesn’t look like he does now,” Cowser said.

In particular, Henderson’s swing has improved. Henderson’s high school swing is what made the NL team official exclaim, “Oh my god.” Another evaluator said, “It was pretty bad.” Back in high school, the evaluator said, Henderson was hunched over at the plate, and the movement through his swing was far from smooth. It was kind of like a Kirk Gibson swing, said the evaluator, mentioning the former MVP and football player who seemed to lurch at the ball from a slight crouch — like he was swinging a wiffle ball bat, with the movement of his hands not really connected with his legs.

That worked well for Gibson — but not for Henderson, in the eyes of multiple evaluators. “There was a lot of swing and miss,” said another evaluator, from an American League team. “You just weren’t sure how the bat was going to play. We had him close to where the Orioles had him, maybe lower — maybe late second round, third round. There was a lot of volatility in his offensive performance.”

A different evaluator: “We had him end of the third round. We weren’t sure if he would hit. It was pretty rough.”

Henderson had also played against a lower level of competition, leaving teams to guess how he would develop as he faced better players in pro ball. And while he was a superior athlete in high school, one of the rival evaluators said, it was not entirely clear how he would develop as he matured into an adult. Would extra weight reduce his speed? Given the flawed nature of his swing, would his increased strength necessarily translate into power? Some teams seriously doubted whether he could remain at shortstop.

Henderson said that going into the draft, he had been told to expect the worst, “because draft night is its own beast.” A couple of teams that had told Henderson they were hot on him passed, and so he began to settle on the idea that he was headed to college, to Auburn.

The Orioles had the first pick of the second round, but Henderson had had no contact with them before the draft — “none at all,” he recalled. He had no expectation that Baltimore would draft him, but there was still optimism within his family: Baltimore happened to be the favorite team of Gunnar’s 12-year-old brother, Cade, who wore Orioles pajamas to bed, hoping that they would select his brother.

Cade got his wish, and now some of the same rival executive officials who watched Henderson slide to the 42nd pick in 2019 say that if they knew then what they know now and there was a redo of that draft, Henderson would be regarded as the best overall player. “Adley is great, but if you see the tendencies of teams to take shortstops, Gunnar would probably be 1-1 for [a lot of scouts],” said one official. “Either he or Bobby Witt. I mean — that was a great draft.” (The Kansas City Royals shortstop was selected No. 2 overall, after Rutschman.)

Since then, in the eyes of those rival evaluators, Baltimore clearly did a great job with Henderson remaking his swing. As Henderson has aged and gained weight, he has gotten faster, as well as stronger, with bursts of quickness and power in what he does. Brandon Hyde, the Orioles manager, recalled a play when Henderson slid into the shortstop hole to field a grounder before leaping into the air, Derek Jeter-like, and whipping a throw to first base for an out.

“What was that about?” Hyde asked Henderson when he came back to the dugout. As Henderson tends to do, he brushed off the conversation — the compliment — because of his own high expectations.

That play? The moonshot homers? Hustling for an extra base? No big deal. All along, it seems, Gunnar Henderson expected more out of himself than what others saw in him.

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