In the 2016 First-Year Player Draft, the Orioles selected outfielder Austin Hays out of Jacksonville University in the third round. The next year, after his first full professional year, Hays had a season among the best in all of the minor leagues. He was finalist for Baseball America’s Player of the Year.
After a season where Hays hit 32 homers and drove in 95 runs in high Single-A and Double-A, he was keeping company with some of the game’s brightest young stars. Ronald Acuña Jr. won Baseball America's Player of the Year award then, but Hays was a finalist with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette of Toronto. That winter, Baseball America ranked Hays No. 21 on its top 100 list.
While some injuries slowed Hays over the ensuing seasons, he finally stayed on the field a lot last season and posted a better-than-league-average .769 OPS for the Orioles, showing glimpses of his talent.
This year, that talent has been on full display. Hays has gone 12-for-21 his past six games and is batting .463 (19-for-41) his last 11 games. Since April 15, his average is among the best in the major leagues at .386. He has reached base 12 times his last 14 plate appearances after going 2-for-3 in Monday’s win over Kansas City.
Teammate Trey Mancini said he knew Hays could do this.
“He is an All-Star caliber player in my opinion,” Mancini said in the clubhouse before Monday's game. “And I really believe that. There is no weakness to his game. I don’t know what you could knock him on. He plays the outfield extremely well. He’s got a cannon. Runs well. Puts home runs into the seats and takes his hits too. He can do it all, he really can.
“You know it’s not surprising to me at all. I had a feeling that this year, if I had to pick a guy to take a huge step forward, he probably was the first one to come to mind. Just that he is such a competitor and he played all last year hurt, you know a lot of last year at least not 100 percent. But he still played really well.”
Hays is batting .327/.403/.500 with a .903 OPS for the year and he ranks sixth in the American League in average, seventh in on-base percentage, fifth in hits and eighth in OPS.
The term "five-tool talent" is thrown around a lot. But Hays seems to be that rare player that can beat his opponent with one or more of those tools on a given night.
“You know he has shown signs of that (five-tool) in the past,” manager Brandon Hyde said Monday. “There have been streaks that he’s had where – he’s shown a little bit of everything. He’s got speed, he’s got power, he plays defense, he can throw. The last couple of games he has shown what he can do.
“He can change the game defensively. He can change the game with one swing of the bat. Guy can really, really run. Now it’s just about consistency throughout a six-month season.”
Hyde believes Hays will show that consistency also.
“I think he is one of the guys, third or fourth year, now he is starting to pile up at-bats," said Hyde. "He understands how pitchers are pitching to him. Understands what his strengths are and once you kind of get to that point where you are comfortable in the big leagues, you can really start taking off.”
Added Mancini: “He is super confident and has been up here for a while. He really got an opportunity to entrench himself last year and I think that naturally gives you confidence. He got off to a slow start this year but he showed up and knew he would do well. He has supreme confidence that you can’t teach. That is really important here.”
Hays has also been showing a lot of passion and emotion on the field. He plays with a certain fire. Mancini likes that and believes it shows a bigger picture of a clubhouse that truly has that same inner passion and believes this is the start of better days in Birdland.
“Yeah, for sure,” said Mancini. “He’s such a competitor. It’s great to see. These guys really care and we always have. It’s just a little bit different this year. These guys have been here for a while and they know they belong. So instead of trying to make a name for themselves or stay here, they know they belong. Now it’s kind of go time. Hays is a prime example of that. A lot of guys are showing they belong here. It’s awesome to see."