Was O’s center fielder of the future on display at the Yard?

The last two nights at Camden Yards, 24-year-old outfielder Austin Hays reminded us of the fantastic year he had in 2017. One that ended with him being named the Orioles’ Minor League Player of the Year and one of five finalists as Baseball America’s National Player of the Year.

That season, Hays batted a combined .329/.365/.593 with 32 doubles, five triples, 32 home runs and 95 RBIs in 128 games at Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie. He joined Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as a finalist for Baseball America’s top honor along with Jon Duplantier, Bo Bichette and the 2017 winner, Ronald Acuña Jr.

Three of those players were on the field last night. And it was Vladdy who hit the deep drive to center that led to Hays making a spectacular catch with his left arm raised high above the center wall to rob Guerrero of a homer. It was a play that might have reminded Oriole Park fans of a Mike Trout catch in Baltimore. Trout robbed J.J. Hardy in June 2012 with a very similar catch. Guess what? He gave himself a fist to his chest after that one. And Hays pounded his chest three times last night after his remarkable catch.

Hays had his first major league game with two doubles on Wednesday and hit his first-ever Camden Yards homer last night. He went 4-for-7 in the last two games of the series. And yes, O’s fans might be dreaming of having him as their center fielder for the next 10 years.

Hays was set back this year by a dislocated left thumb and sprained right hamstring. Those injuries limited him to 87 games on the farm, where he hit a very modest .248 with an OPS of .763. But Hays finally felt pretty much fully healthy late in the year, and we’re seeing recently that the tools and talent are very evident.

We’re seeing why he was once in consideration with players like Guerrero, Bichette and Acuña.

Hays is batting .345/.424/.586 in 12 games for the Orioles. He has seven hits over his last 16 at-bats. He plays with passion and a certain abandon that his manager seems to truly like.

Hours before last night’s game and before his homer and great catch, I asked Hays if he felt like he was playing as well now as he did in that 2017 season?

Hays-Leaps-Orange-sidebar.jpg“I mean, the results are showing up the same as 2017. But I try not to get too caught up in everything,” he said. “Baseball is a crazy game. But I feel really comfortable right now. Like I have a good plan going into each at-bat against the pitchers and with all the positioning in the outfield. I feel really prepared for each game and every situation we go into.”

Like many fans, no doubt, Hays can also envision himself as the center fielder on opening day next year if he keeps progressing and playing as he has this month.

“Ultimately, that’s the goal, and what I’ve been pushing for the last two years. That’s what I want to get to, but I’m just sticking game-to-game right now,” Hays said, not wanting to get too far ahead of himself.

In his immediate future after this O’s season ends, Hays will report to the Arizona Fall League and finish out the season that began this week. He can get in another three or 3 1/2 weeks’ worth of games. The regular season ends there Oct. 25.

In addition to getting some missed reps in the Arizona Fall League, Hays told me yesterday he wants to work on plate discipline there. Not necessarily just drawing more walks, but becoming a bit more selective as a hitter.

“Want to get my walk-to-strikeout ratio a little bit closer,” he said. “Not necessarily try to walk more, but fine tune my zone. Try to swing at better pitches. Don’t expand early in the count as much as I have in the past. That is something you can only do in games off pitchers. It comes with getting reps.”

And Hays added that there is a fine line between being more selective and losing the aggressiveness that helps make him a good hitter.

“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “That is why I think it’s trying to have a 2-0 mindset more often. Only swinging at pitches that you can hit hard early in the count. Just kind of a simple way to put it. You’re ready to swing every pitch, but only at one you can really drive. Then if you get to two strikes, you’re just battling to put the ball in play. But just trying to shrink my zone to a little bit smaller area where I can drive the ball earlier in the count. So I’m aggressive, but to a smaller window of pitches, so to speak.”

So there you go. A young player already flashing some nice tools at the major league level but smart enough to know what he needs to work on for most lasting success.

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