Orioles outfielder Austin Hays couldn’t reach his full potential as a baseball player until he stopped training like a football player.
To put it in simple terms.
Hays appeared in 131 games last season, easily the most of his career, but he dealt with hamstring strains and pushed through the pain of a sports hernia that required surgery on Oct. 5 in Philadelphia. He’s gotten into 80 games this year without any stops on the injured list, though a sore right wrist kept him out of the lineup yesterday, and credits the changes made in his training methods that began in 2021.
Less is more in the weight room. Also pretty simple.
Hays’ representative, Francis Marquez of The MAS+ Agency, introduced the outfielder to strength and conditioning coach Theo Aasen, who owns Optimal Athlete Kollective in Tampa. Two of Marquez’s clients, Twins catcher Gary Sánchez and Orioles minor league pitcher Ryan Watson, also have worked out with Aasen.
The basic message is that becoming a beast in the gym can do more harm than good. There’s beauty in a little less bulk.
“It’s a lot more movement. Base training and less weights, which I still do, but it’s not like how I used to. It’s more so to keep your joints strong and working on the little muscles, so to speak,” Hays said.
“I started doing it last year because I was playing with the hernia, so I was overcompensating and getting tight in a lot of areas and it was very dangerous to play with that. I dealt with the two hamstring issues because I was running differently from running with the hernia. It turned out that the rest of my body beside the hernia was the best I’ve ever felt playing, and I just continued that through the offseason. Instead of trying to gain 10 pounds and bulk up and come into spring training heavier, I was like, I’m just going to try to stay exactly where I’m at right now and feeling good, and I think that’s why I got off to a good start this year, because there wasn’t that adjustment period, like losing weight and thinning down and getting loose, and then you start to feel good in, like, June.
“I felt like I was in baseball playing shape from the first game of the season. That tight feeling that I normally had, I was able to get rid of that. He’s been a huge help for me in my career this past year.”
They’ve only been together a few times, including once last year. Aasen created an app on his phone that allows him to upload videos of the workouts and track the progress. Long distance lunges.
The Orioles aren’t shielded from it. Hays takes information from both sides to get the best results. It’s a nice mix.
“I work with our strength and performance staff here, to make sure if there’s areas they feel like I’m lacking through that program. We can add or we can subtract just to make sure I’m getting everything I need,” Hays said.
“It’s just changing the mindset of what I was trying to accomplish through working out. Before, it was just trying to be big and strong, and that’s what I thought would play in the game, but that wasn’t true at all. I was actually, I think, hurting myself, so it’s been good since I started working with him. My body feels good.”
Aasen saw that Hays was laboring last season due to injury and reached out to Marquez.
“I was talking to Francis and I said, ‘I can fix him, I know what’s going on,’” Aasen said. “(Hays) told me what was happening and I was like, ‘Let’s get you started on some basic mobility and really dive into my method and my theory, how to keep your body going through the season. And during the offseason we’ll cover the really good stuff.’
“What I did was, just put him on the app, and every day he'd give me feedback, and we designed a program to really attack his needs, and for him to play every day like he’s pain-free, which I guess is happening right now.
“We talk every week just to check in, and I see what he’s doing on the app. He’s able to communicate with me on there, like, did he do his work, didn’t he do his work? He’s able to write in on there and tell me.”
How does Hays lighten the load to gain more playing time?
“Instead of me doing a heavy back squat or I used to do a heavy dumbbell bench, it’s more like a single-arm, rotate the dumbbell on the way down to take the pressure off my shoulder and go through a more full range of motion,” he explained. “We cleaned up the technique on my front squat a lot. I don’t go nearly as heavy. It’s more eccentric movements down, controlling at the bottom and coming up.
“I do a very deep lunge, where I’m trying to get as deep as possible, opposed to holding heavier dumbbells and just going through a minimal-movement lunge. It’s stepping really far and opening up my hip flexors and groin. It’s almost like going through stretching movements, but with light weight.”
“That’s the problem with a lot of athletes,” Aasen said. “They think they need to be this professional exerciser, but that’s not it. They need to be good movers and have quality movement. They need to understand their bodies are like a cat, especially baseball players because they have to stand for a long time, and all of a sudden they have to act quick. It’s creating that supple body, and that’s what we did. We were able to get his body to be prepared to where now it’s almost like he doesn’t really have to warm up. He just feels good and his joints have strength through all the ranges. And having his nervous system just ready to go at all times.”
Hays ventured into the program knowing that Aasen had worked with plenty of other athletes in a variety of sports, a client list that also includes former catcher Francisco Cervelli and pitcher Danny Salazar.
“There’s been a direct correlation to health and using Theo,” Hays said. “He had four or five other guys start using him and all five players haven’t been on the IL since they all started using this guy. I was like, ‘Man, if that’s something that can help keep me on the field, I’m going to make that adjustment.’ Theo’s definitely helped me stay healthy.”
A positive attitude going in is leading to positive results on the field. His defense has been exceptional, including the diving catch in Chicago when he landed on the right field line, and his sprint toward the left field line Saturday at Camden Yards to haul in Kurt Suzuki’s fly ball and close out a 1-0 win.
The extra territory in left has been easy for him to cover. He’s the preferred choice on that side.
And his body makes a rapid recovery.
The only issues have been the wrist, which he landed on making the catch at Guaranteed Rate Field and then was hit by a pitch in the same spot, and his left hand that was cut after the Cardinals’ Génesis Cabrera cleated him. Nothing muscular. Incidents that are more a product of bad luck.
“He was going heavy,” Aasen said. “You look at these college facilities or the old school strength style of stronger, more weight. You need to get stronger, you need to get bigger. But that’s not really what needed to be done. You need to move better, you need to have better freedom in your joints, you need to have strength through all of those ranges in your joints.
“It's like working on his flexibility, but now imagine having that flexibility with all that strength through that range. If you bring your leg all the way to your head, you can actually bring it actively and not pull it.”
No one is pulling Hays’ leg. These are real results.
“He said to me, ‘I feel like I can play every day pain-free. I’m ready to go every day,’” Aasen said. “There’s little things here and there just from being sore, but that’s what you expect, that’s part of the fatigue, it’s part of the game. But that’s all that an athlete should feel from playing this sport is just feel a little bit of fatigue. These injuries can be prevented.
“You can’t prevent impact injuries or anything like that, but as in strains and muscle spasms and stuff like that, you can prevent that. Prevent anything from getting ramped up.”