Phoenix, Arizona —— I spent eight days in the Arizona League earlier this month, seeing ten total games thanks to a few strategically placed doubleheaders, and one guy more than anybody else made an impression in my dive into rookie ball: Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Rob Henry. Sure, I took a look at some high-profile prospects (click here and here for a few of them), saw a few rehabbers come through (click here and here for two of those), and even caught a relief outing by a guy with 81 big league home runs (that is an interesting story; click here to read it). But beyond all of that, the one I guy I keep thinking about now that I’m back home in Los Angeles and back to my regular schedule in the California League is Robert Henry, a no-name afterthought 39th round draft pick this summer out of the Ivy League‘s Brown University.
Henry is not high-profile. He won’t show up on the organizational top prospect list of any reputable publication. He’s most certainly not (yet) a future cog of any significance for the Milwaukee Brewers, and I’m certain you’ve never heard of him (I hadn’t). But he’s absolutely fascinating. For one, he has a legitimate cannon in the outfield. For a late-round low-level draft pick who may not be long for pro ball simply because of ever-tightening roster crunches, Henry’s throwing arm is a legitimate double-plus tool. It’s impressive to watch the velocity and carry he gets on throws from center field, along with good accuracy from deep in the gaps. Couple that with legitimately plus foot speed both in the outfield and on the bases, and suddenly you have a small school kid with—dare I say it—two impressive physical pieces that could become carrying tools far beyond his draft round and depth spot in the organization.
Henry is more of a work in progress at the plate, showing little power and average bat speed, but his plus foot speed should help as he adds more natural strength and leverage to his swing mechanics. I think eventually he’ll become a gap-to-gap line drive guy who will rack up doubles because of his speed, though that’ll come in time as his wrist and forearm strength improve and he fills out with another year or two of high-level strength and conditioning work. What he does do well at the plate right now, though, is flash impressive strike zone awareness and discipline. Yes, he’s a 22-year-old college kid in a league filled with guys three and four years his junior, but Henry’s Brown University background offered him likely one decent velocity look each week in every opponent’s ace Friday night starter; enter pro ball and suddenly everybody throws 92 mph with a hard slider, no matter their age, and I like how Henry has adjusted in taking an all-fields approach with good plate coverage and patience against better raw stuff than he’s likely ever seen in his life.
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So what are we to take away from Robert Henry and the impression he’s making in the AZL? Maybe it’s similar to another under-the-radar guy I saw earlier in the AZL schedule last week, in that Henry is a small-school, late-round underdog who will make for a great story one day if he ever beats the odds and reaches The Show. Maybe, just as with Mitch Stophel, there’s a personal attractiveness here to me—isn’t there a selfish attractiveness to discovering somebody, if for no other reason than the self-serving credit you can later take if the kid ever makes it?
Oh, you finally saw Robert Henry up in Double-A? Yeah, well, I was on him in rookie ball. I knew he’d be good early. Take a high-profile stance on an under-the-radar kid, and if he makes it, you look like a genius. If he misses, hey, you can fall back on the old adage: baseball is hard, and it didn’t work out. I’d like to think I’m not that selfish and egotistical, but maybe there’s some of that at play in my admiration here. Who in my industry doesn’t want a reputation for discovering hidden gems?
But more than any look-at-me read on Henry, more than the feel-good underdog story it’d make if the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder ever does reach his dream, I think it comes down to one thing: this kid can play. No, he’s not a prospect, and no, he’s not likely to be a big league starting outfielder of the future, but this dude is far better than most anybody in baseball realizes. Over the next few years, Milwaukee Brewers fans who pay attention to the minor leagues should slowly find that out.
Yes, Robert Henry could get released this winter—when you’re a 39th rounder out of a small school playing as a 22-year-old in the AZL you’re far enough down the depth chart that, well, you just don’t get that many opportunities. And yes, he could reach High-A or Double-A and prove to be ill-equipped to handle high-level pitching, and wash out in another few years. The odds are forever stacked against him as they are with most anybody in the minor leagues, and it’s far more likely Henry will have another job outside of the game in five years than he’ll be tracking down fly balls for some pro club. But forget all that, and the underdog story, and the discovery narrative, and the small-school status. Go back to what’s important here, because it comes down to the biggest compliment I can think to give a kid who repeatedly impressed with smart, hard play all week in the unforgiving Arizona League: Robert Henry is a ballplayer. Not much more needs to be said.