There are likely not many players that have had two such very different first two full seasons in pro baseball than Orioles outfield prospect Austin Hays. In 2017, he was ranked among the best minor leaguers in the sport. But in 2018, a slow start at the plate and later an ankle injury left him with 20 fewer homers and an OPS nearly 300 points below the previous season.
Between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie in 2017, Hays hit .329/.365/.593 with 32 doubles, five triples, 32 homers, 95 RBIs and an OPS of .958. It was such a strong year that he was both the Orioles Minor League Player of the Year and a finalist for Baseball America’s National Player of the Year, keeping company with the likes of Ronald Acuña Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
But the 23-year-old Hays, who was a September call-up in 2017, was limited to 75 games last season, with 66 at Bowie. For the year, he hit .235/.266/.410 with an OPS of .676.
He was hitting just .224 at the end of May when a right ankle injury became an issue. Resolving it took most of the rest of the year, and the confusing nature of the injury didn’t completely reveal itself until Hays had surgery on Sept. 13. That was even though he returned in August and hit .273 his last 99 at-bats for the Baysox.
“It was a really tough season and no one ever wants to have a season where you play half the games and end up with surgery after that,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “You just never really feel like yourself, even though you trick yourself into thinking you are healthy. Once you actually get surgery and start feeling good again, you realize how hurt you were and how difficult the season was.
“I can tell you I learned more about the game and how to deal with failures and injuries and rehab than anything I had learned through the great season I had in 2017. It really is true that you learn more from your failures and not always through the success.”
Hays didn’t play for Bowie from the end of May until Aug. 7. Several times, he seemed poised to return only to find out his ankle was still bothering him.
“It was just kind of a gradual thing that all came about through some cartilage damage that I’ve had in my ankle,” he said. “The cartilage started causing some bone bruising. In my ankle joint, two bones were hitting that cartilage that shouldn’t be hitting anything. That caused some fluid and some swelling, and that caused the cyst that I’ve had. And the cyst caused the bone bruise and the bone bruise made my ankle soften, and where it softened was eventually where it fractured. So it was just a gradual thing that happened over time the more I played on it. It was really an out-of-the-blue thing that came out of nowhere.”
And despite repeated attempts to treat the injury that appeared to have him returning to health, that never fully happened. Not until his recent surgery in Green Bay, Wisc.
“When they went in and did the arthroscopic surgery with the camera, they saw the cartilage damage and there was a hole in my cartilage,” Hays said. “So that was the cause of everything. That is what sparked all the stuff that went on. Even if I had gone in right away and gotten the surgery, they still would have had to repair the cartilage and it would been just as much time for recovery. So they tried to explore all the options - with a cortisone shot and a walking boot - just to be sure before they went in.
“It was really tough during the year. We couldn’t really pinpoint what was wrong, so they couldn’t give me a timetable. I’d wear the boot for two weeks and then it was not getting better. Two more weeks. And then another 10 days and it ended up being three months. But having surgery, you know for sure, this is how long it’s going to take and this is what you need to do. It is easier to stay positive when you have such a timetable.”
Hays finally has that timetable and peace of mind that his injury is going to completely heal and be behind him for good this time.
“I just had this doubt in the back of my mind that this could happen again,” he said. “Now that I know how this came about and that everything got fixed, it gives me a lot of confidence and a lot of peace of mind.”
And now Hays is well on the way to being 100 percent.
“It is a two- to three-month recovery,” he said. “So right now, I am running in this AlterG machine (anti-gravity treadmill), so they can control how much of your body weight you’re using. I’m running on 85 percent of my body weight and we control how fast I want to go. I’ve been running a mile at a time at a pretty fast speed on 85 percent of my body weight. It’s coming along well and it feels great and I’m in good shape. I’m in that last little bit of my recovery process. Getting on flat ground and running is all that is left to do.
“Basically, I will be ready to start sprints, cuts and jumps with max effort the beginning of January. As far as being able to hit and throw, I can do those right now.”
Hays has already had an eventful offseason, as he got engaged and will get married next offseason. Now he wants to wrap up the rehab and enter the new year with an ankle that is good as new.
The player that the Orioles saw in 2017 is still in there. He just needs health and at-bats.
“I just was really confident (in 2017). I started out the year well and when I would have a bad game here or there, I would not let it carry into the next day,” Hays said. “I could turn the page. I just seemed to stay hot throughout the whole year.”
He ended it as a top 100 prospect and someone with a shot to impact the 2018 O’s roster. But a spring shoulder issue was just the beginning of a frustrating year for Hays. But now that’s behind him and Hays is ready to show the Orioles that when they look at their top outfield depth on the farm, be sure to include him.