For a time in June, Orioles left fielder Austin Hays was leading the American League in batting average. He was hitting as high as .327 on June 20. He didn’t finish above .300 but still wound up tied for 12th in the AL in average.
Over 144 games and 566 plate appearances, Hays batted .275/.325/.444/.769 with 36 doubles, two triples, 16 homers, 76 runs, five steals and 67 RBIs. His OPS+ of 114 ranked sixth among O’s everyday players and was his best mark in the three full seasons he has played, surpassing the 107 from 2021 and 105 from last year.
So Hays had an overall solid 2023 season, but it was another one where his stats fell off in the second half. That happened to him in 2022 also, but it was still a 2023 season where he produced career highs in doubles, runs, hits (143), extra-base hits (54) and multi-hit games (40). He tied for ninth in the AL in doubles and was 29th in OPS.
In the first half of this year, before he made his first All-Star game appearance and started in center field, Hays batted .314 with an .853 OPS. And that fell to 228/.667 in the second half. His OPS in 2022 dropped from .779 to .626 half to half.
During spring training this year Hays said he got pull happy at times late in the 2022 season and he needed to stay with an up-the-middle and gap-to-gap approach.
Back in March I asked how a player can get away from that approach during the long season?
"It can be a number of things,” he said then. “Can be something you are thinking mentally, could be things you are dealing with physically that are not allowing you to do some of the same drills or get to the same positions you were before. Could be anything during a long season. You play every day, you can develop bad habits sometimes. Just need to get back to what makes you good and stick with that.”
After a four-hit, four-RBI game Sept. 6 in Anaheim, Hays was batting .288 with an OPS of .799. But, like several of his teammates, his bat fell off late in the season. He hit just .191 with a .576 OPS his last 21 games to lower the final numbers.
Hays went 3-for-11 with a double during the American League Division Series versus Texas.
After the season he got some props for his left field defense, being named a Gold Glove finalist in left in the AL with Toronto’s Daulton Varsho and Cleveland’s Steven Kwan, who won a GG last year. And Kwan won again last night as Hays and the Orioles were shutout for the Gold Glove. Catcher Adley Rutschman and first baseman Ryan Mountcastle were also finalists.
Hays ranked third on the O’s with six Defensive Runs Saved, per Sports Info Solutions. And he did not commit an error in 1,195 1/3 innings in the outfield in 260 total chances. According to STATS, he is the 10th O’s outfielder in club history to not commit an error in a season (min. 100 G) and first since Cedric Mullins in 2022; he was one of seven outfielders in MLB this season to play at least 100 games without an error. He also ranked in the top nine percent of MLB in the Statcast metric arm value.
His defense has to be valued highly patrolling left field now at the more spacious Camden Yards. The defense and his strong arm are weapons for the Orioles in left.
Hays is an aggressive hitter who can fall behind in the count and chase pitches, although he did that a bit less in the 2023 season.
But this year when he put the first pitch in play, he hit .456 with an OPS of 1.163. When he put the ball in play when ahead in the count, he batted .321 with a .967 OPS.
Some young outfielders from the farm are starting to find their way onto the roster and the current O's starters could all be pushed for playing time in 2024 and beyond.
Hays starting spot is likely secure for now and the O's can win with a left fielder that exceeds league average on both offense and defense.