In the American League stats heading into last night’s games, he was still No. 1. The Orioles' Austin Hays was the American League’s leading hitter batting .319 and leading Bo Bichette at .318 by that narrow margin with Tampa Bay’s Yandy Diaz next at .316.
We know Hays will not make the All-Star team through the fan vote, as he has not advanced to the next phase of balloting. But he still could be selected to play for the American League on July 11 at Seattle.
“Would be a huge honor. It is just an accolade that is next to your name forever. That is something I’ll be able to tell my kids one day if that were something to happen. It would mean a lot to me, but we’ll see what happens,” said Hays earlier in this homestand.
Hays has been pretty relentless this season in his up-the-middle of the field approach. He told me during spring training he would work hard this year to use the whole field but starts with that gap-to-gap approach and felt he got away from that in the second-half of last year.
In 2022 he got off to a start like he has done now with a .834 OPS in late June and then it was just .626 in the second half. He was banged up a bit but stayed on the field without keeping up his early-season batting success.
So this March he said this of his approach for 2023: “Want to be able to use the whole field rather than be more pull-side like I was later (in the 2022 year). Just a very standard middle-of-the-field and be able to drive the ball the other way approach. Nothing crazy. Just sticking with the basics.
“Been hitting the fastball to the other side of the field so far. Hit a lot of balls to the right side early on in camp and like I said that has been my focus, to use the whole field. It’s showing, what I did in the offseason and what I am trying to focus on.”
And through Monday’s games, in 71 games, he was hitting .319/.357/.510/.866. And he ranked sixth in the AL in slugging, fourth with 22 doubles and seventh in OPS. And perhaps more importantly he is third among AL outfielders in the OPS rankings. Others ahead of him play other positions.
So should not a player leading the league in batting that is third among outfielders in OPS make the All-Star team?
“I think this is the most consistent I’ve been for a stretch of time since probably my 2017 season,” said Hays, who was a finalist that year on the farm for Baseball America's Player of the Year. “Spent most of that year in the minors, came up to the big leagues a little that year. But I was pretty consistent with just my health, my approach and my mechanics from start to finish that year playing at three different levels. But definitely in the big leagues, this is the most consistent stretch I’ve had of good mechanics and good health and just getting good results too.”
Hays has been the model of consistency at bat this year, with an OPS of .840 versus lefties and .872 against right-handed pitching. His OPS is a robust .885 in AL East games. By month it was .950 in April, .815 in May and is .882 in June.
As his average climbed above .300, did he notice pitchers were adjusting to him or pitching him any differently than earlier?
“Not really. It still just depends on what type of pitcher they are. Their plan is going to be totally different than the next guy the next day. Overall, I don’t think there has been a huge change. Just been a more stubborn approach by myself to not chase as many pitches out of the zone. Pitch recognition has been a little bit better. Just not swing at edgy stuff early in counts. That has let me to stick to my plan, really no matter what the pitcher is trying to do. I have noticed a bigger difference in myself more so than actually what the pitchers are trying to do.”
Hays may be right here. He has made gains seemingly more to do with him than anyone else or how they approach him. Last year he ranked in the top 11 percent of MLB in chase rate. That is the top 37 percent this year, far from great, but much better. And his average exit velocity jumped from the bottom 25 percent in 2022 to the top 25 percent now, going from 87.7 to 91.0 mph.
So he is chasing less and hitting the ball harder more. It's been a strong combo for Hays in 2023.
Gunnar on Westburg: Yesterday I wrote this story about Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg playing together on the same infield with the Orioles for the first time. But they were together often on the farm. So this was not at all new for the duo.
They played together at three levels in 2021: At Low Single-A Delmarva, at High-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie. In 2022 they were not only together at Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, but they moved together to Triple-A the same day on June 6.
At one point the older Westburg who is 24 was like a baseball big brother to the younger Henderson, who turns 22 tomorrow. Not so much a mentor but someone with more baseball experience as a college drafted player with Henderson coming out of the prep ranks.
“We had a friendly competitiveness of playing the game and pushing each other to be our best. Felt like that was something we did every day. Playing together so much, we know each other so well and our games and that will only help us up here," said Henderson.