What’s been known for months finally became official Monday: Gunnar Henderson is the American League Rookie of the Year.
The 22-year-old infielder emerged this season as not just the circuit’s best rookie but as the best player on the AL’s best regular-season team and one of the most valuable players in the major leagues. He was recognized for his stellar rookie campaign Monday evening by unanimously winning the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s AL Rookie of the Year Award, receiving all 30 first-place votes to beat out Cleveland’s Tanner Bibee and Boston’s Triston Casas.
Henderson hit .255 with a team-best .814 OPS, 28 home runs, 29 doubles, nine triples and 10 stolen bases. He overcame a slow start and popped in the summer when he regularly impacted games at the plate, on the bases and in the field. His 6.2 wins above replacement were easily the most among Baltimore players, and he earned the designation of Most Valuable Oriole, as voted by local media.
No Oriole had won Rookie of the Year since right-hander Gregg Olson in 1989, which was the longest drought in the AL. Henderson is the seventh Oriole to win the award, joining Olson, Cal Ripken Jr. (1982), Eddie Murray (1977), Al Bumbry (1973), Curt Blefary (1965) and Ron Hansen (1960).
Adley Rutschman was in the running in 2022, but the star catcher finished second behind Seattle’s Julio Rodríguez. Rutschman and Henderson being finalists for the award in consecutive seasons was a dream scenario when the Orioles drafted the college catcher and high school infielder with their first two picks in the 2019 draft. Now, it’s the Orioles’ reality.
“It’s pretty cool, especially just having my name etched up there with Cal and Gregg Olson is pretty cool to be able to say that, especially being from a small town,” Henderson said on a video call. “It was something that was on my mind, but I just went out there and tried to play as hard as I could each and every day. I felt like I had a good shot if I just went out there and did that.”
The year after Ripken won the award in 1982, the shortstop was named the AL’s Most Valuable Player and led the Orioles to its most recent World Series trophy.
“Congratulations, Gunnar on being named the 2023 Jackie Robinson AL Rookie of the Year! What a cool moment, I was happy to be a part of it,” Ripken posted on social media after he made the announcement on MLB Network.
“It’s really special,” Henderson said about Ripken being a part of the announcement. “[He is] one of the best to ever do it. Having [his] support and him being able to take time out of his day to do this and coming to the clubhouse and stuff and chatting with me, it’s been pretty special to have a guy like that. I can’t thank him enough for everything he’s done.”
Henderson is the 13th player to win the award unanimously, joining Carlton Fisk (1972), Mark McGwire (1987), Sandy Alomar Jr. (1990), Tim Salmon (1993), Derek Jeter (1996), Nomar Garciaparra (1997), Evan Longoria (2008), Mike Trout (2012), José Abreu (2014), Aaron Judge (2017), Yordan Alvarez (2019) and Kyle Lewis (2020).
Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Corbin Carroll won the award in the National League. Carroll was a unanimous selection, beating out New York Mets right-hander Kodai Senga and Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder James Outman.
In the summer of 2018, Carroll and Henderson played together on a showcase team. A little more than five years later, they are unanimous Rookies of the Year.
“We both swapped jerseys whenever we went and played in Arizona, so being able to have that and both winning Rookie of the Year is pretty special,” Henderson said.
The hardware isn’t just something that will go on Henderson’s shelf, though. It also means the Orioles get another opportunity to draft the next Gunnar Henderson. By winning the award, Henderson has earned the Orioles an extra draft pick after the first round next year.
The 2022 collective bargaining agreement instituted measures to curb service-time manipulation by providing incentives for teams to promote well-regarded prospects and give players opportunities to earn additional service time to reach arbitration and free agency sooner. In Henderson’s case, he started the season on the Orioles’ opening day roster, and since he accrued a full year of service in 2023, Baltimore will receive a prospect promotion incentive (PPI) pick. Only top 100 prospects — on at least two of the three major lists — are eligible to get their teams the additional selection. Last year, Rodríguez earned the Mariners the 29th pick in the 2023 draft; Rutschman, meanwhile, was awarded a full year of service despite not being promoted until May and failing to reach the requisite 172 days because he finished second in voting.
The Diamondbacks will also receive a PPI pick for Carroll winning the award, meaning Arizona and Baltimore will have the first two picks after the first round ends, tentatively Nos. 31 and 32 overall. The PPI picks are determined by reverse order of regular-season winning percentage, meaning the Diamondbacks (.519) will pick ahead of the Orioles (.623). The additional pick means Baltimore is expected to have three selections between Nos. 24 and 33 in the 2024 draft: their actual first-round pick (No. 24), their PPI selection (No. 32) and the first pick in Competitive Balance Round A (No. 33).
Henderson will also receive a $750,000 bonus from the pre-arbitration player bonus pool for winning the award.
Henderson, who debuted in August 2022 but maintained his rookie eligibility for 2023, opened the year as the betting favorite to win the award, but a slow start dampened the hype for a player who entered the season as the consensus top prospect in baseball. He hit .170 through his first 100 at-bats, but as the season progressed, he became more aggressive and confident at the plate to hit .274 with an .849 OPS the rest of the way.
“Being able to get through that little struggle in the beginning was honestly the biggest thing for me because some guys can get caught up in that and just have a really hard time getting over it,” Henderson said. “I’m very thankful that the Orioles let me go through that and make it through it and being able to put a good year together.”
He started to heat up in late May and fully broke out in June when he was named the AL Player of the Month. The month contained some of Henderson’s best moments, including two game-winning homers and a blast at Camden Yards that traveled a projected 462 feet for the farthest ball ever hit onto Eutaw Street, according to Statcast tracking data.
In July, a week before turning 22, Henderson opened a game at Yankee Stadium 4-for-4 with two home runs in one of the Orioles’ most impressive victories of their 101-win season. A month later, he put together an even better performance with his near-cycle in Oakland when he chose to sprint to second for his fourth extra-base hit rather than remain at first to complete the cycle.
“Gunnar plays the game at one speed, and that’s hard,” manager Brandon Hyde said after the game. “And that’s the right way.”
By that time, Henderson had reestablished himself as the AL Rookie of the Year front-runner. He kept up his stellar play throughout the season, and while the Orioles were swept in the AL Division Series by the eventual World Series champion Texas Rangers, Henderson was a bright spot by going 6-for-12 with a home run.
Only eight players in the majors, four of whom play in the AL, had more wins above replacement this season 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 ace Gerrit Cole, Braves first baseman Matt Olson, Texas Rangers infielder Marcus Semien and Rangers shortstop Corey Seager.
Given his value, it’s possible Henderson appears on some voters’ MVP ballots, though it’s a shoo-in that Ohtani will win the award in the AL. Henderson’s other awards in 2023 include a Silver Slugger, The Sporting News’ AL Rookie of the Year and the MLB Players Association’s AL Outstanding Rookie.
“I’ve just felt like this is where I belonged ever since I’ve been here,” Henderson said. “Ever since I was playing ball at a young age, this is what I wanted to do, so when I got here, it was just, honestly, going out there and just letting myself take over.”
That he has.
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