When I interviewed outfielder Austin Hays before the game Wednesday night at Double-A Bowie, his batting average was just .160 in his first six games of the year. You knew Hays would start hitting soon, but you couldn’t know then that it would be just hours away.
But during Bowie’s win over Erie that night, Hays batted four times. He lined a single to center in the first and hit a long homer to left center in the eighth. In between, he lined out twice. Four at-bats and he squared up four baseballs.
Hays went to spring training this year with a shot to make the Orioles’ opening day roster. That took a hit when he developed some right shoulder soreness, got a cortisone injection and missed several games in March. But after he was optioned to the minors March 24, he played several full games in minor league spring exhibitions. It allowed him to get some needed at-bats and also reinforced that his shoulder was fine.
During the 2017 season - Hays’ first full season in pro baseball - he began the year in the Carolina League and ended it in the American League. He was the Orioles’ minor league Player of the Year and a finalist for Baseball America’s national Player of the Year. Between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie, he batted .329/.365/.593 with 32 doubles, five triples, 32 homers, 81 runs and 95 RBIs. Hays led all minor league players in total bases (310), ranked second in extra-base hits (69) and tied for second in homers.
But after batting .330 with 16 homers and 54 RBIs over 64 games at Bowie, Hays is back with the Baysox to start this year. The Orioles have some veteran outfielders they sent to Triple-A Norfolk, including Joey Rickard, Jaycob Brugman, Alex Presley and Michael Saunders. They join Triple-A rookie DJ Stewart on the Tides. So Hays is back playing his home games at Prince George’s Stadium to start the new season.
“I understand it,” Hays said of returning to Bowie. “You’ve got to find spots to put everybody. It’s nice to be able to come back here. I’ve had my successes here. I’m comfortable here. I know the area and the coaches.
“I’m swinging it good. I’m staying in the zone for the most part. I’ve struck out more than I’d like to, but I’m putting the barrel on the ball and looking to continue to have good at-bats.”
He sure did that on Wednesday night. But over seven Bowie games, Hays is batting just .207 (6-for-29) with two homers, three RBIs and 10 strikeouts.
As Hays continues to work on his offensive game, one clear area of improvement would be adding to his walks total and chasing fewer pitches. We could probably say the same about almost any young player, but in Hays’ brief time in the majors last September, some big league pitchers took advantage of an aggressive hitter to get him to chase some pitches that were not strikes. Hays had a walk rate last season of 4.3 percent with Frederick and 4.6 with Bowie.
It is an area of emphasis for him in 2018.
“I am developing a plan on how I’ll execute what we had talked about on the big league side,” Hays said. “It is just using the aggressiveness that I have, but for a pitch that I can drive, instead of every pitch. It is simplifying it a little bit. Nothing in baseball is easy. It will come with reps and at-bats. Just stay positive and keep working through it.
“I would put it under the category of plate discipline. I feel like I have pretty good pitch recognition. I can see a breaking ball and changeup and off-speed pitches. But it’s a matter of choosing which ones you recognize that you want to swing at. It’s not necessarily the ones I swing at, but the pitches I need to take that I swing at. I just need to have more plate discipline and use the aggressiveness that I have only for pitches I can do damage with instead of pitcher’s pitches.”
As young players like Hays look to polish their games at the higher levels of the farm and finish off their development, there can be growing pains. As Hays looks to improve his plate discipline to enhance his chance for long-term success in the big leagues, will his stats be more modest for a while?
“I guess we will see how it goes,” he said outside the Baysox clubhouse in Bowie. “There is always an adjustment period when you are trying to adapt to what pitchers are trying to do to you. You don’t know if it will click from the first game or take a few weeks.”
Based on the rockets he hit Wednesday, Hays may be making the necessary adjustments just fine.
Last winter, Hays was ranked as the Orioles’ No. 1 prospect and was rated as high as No. 21 in the top 100 by Baseball America and No. 23 by MLBPipeline.com. He was the first player from the 2016 draft to make the majors and the process for him to get back there is now underway in the Eastern League.
He may be a future fixture in the Orioles outfield, but for now he’s back in Bowie and that is OK with him.
“No, that’s not tough. I love to play,” Hays said. “When I am here, I get to play every single day. If I’m playing, I’m happy. I am just trying to get better every day. At the end of the day, it’s still my second full season and I’m still learning.”
Notes on Mountcastle and Hall: Orioles minor league third baseman Ryan Mountcastle remains on the Bowie disabled list with a hairline fracture in his right hand. He got hit by a pitch in a minor league spring game in mid-March. Ranked as the No. 71 prospect by Baseball America, Mountcastle has begun doing defensive drills, but is not yet cleared to swing a bat. The organization is hopeful he can start to do that in late April and then it will be a process after that to build up to get into minor league games. One guess at his return is early to mid-May.
Orioles 2017 top draft pick DL Hall had his debut in full-season ball on Tuesday for Single-A Delmarva. He pitched three scoreless innings, allowing just one hit on 30 pitches against Hickory. He walked one and fanned two. The Orioles will eventually have Hall throw more than three innings in starts, but he is still building up his innings after missing some time during the spring. Hall had his tonsils removed in late January and that had him a bit behind in the spring. So his throwing only three innings right now is more about the fact he’s still building up a bit early in the year.
During spring training I published this profile on Hall.
With a win and two losses on the farm last night, O’s affiliates have a combined record of 20-9 (.690). Triple-A Norfolk is 3-3, Double-A Bowie is 5-2, Single-A Frederick is 5-3 and Single-A Delmarva is 7-1, as the Shorebirds lost for the first time Thursday night.
Stewart went 4-for-5 in the Tides’ 9-8 loss in 10 innings at Syracuse. Stewart is batting .316. Frederick had a season-best 15 hits in a home-opening 11-6 win over Potomac. Eight different Keys drove in runs and Ryan McKenna homered with two RBIs. Delmarva was shut out 2-0 at Lakewood. Cameron Bishop allowed two runs over seven innings. Delmarva starting pitchers have an ERA of 1.83 through eight games.
Steve TV: I’ll be talking about the Orioles minor leagues tonight when I join Tom Davis for a pregame segment on “O’s Xtra” on MASN, which begins at 6:30 p.m.