His skills were on display on offense and defense often in September, but for center fielder Austin Hays maybe they were never more evident then on the night of Monday, Sept. 23 at Toronto.
In a game the Orioles would eventually lose 11-10 in 15 innings, Hays made several strong plays on defense and hit two homers as the team dug out of an early 5-0 hole.
According to STATS, LLC., Hays became the first major league rookie to have five or more RBIs, a stolen base and an outfield assist in the same game since RBIs became an official statistic in 1920.
Yeah, pretty good night.
In 2017, Hays had a huge year in the minors, hitting 32 homers, 95 RBIs and an OPS of .958. But after being called up to the big club, Hays hit just .217 with an OPS of .555 in 63 big league plate appearances. This year, when he was hurt twice and produced much more modest minor league stats, he had a breakout performance for the Orioles. In 75 plate appearances over 21 games, he hit .309/.373/.574 with six doubles, four homers and 13 RBIs. He recorded two steals and a .947 OPS.
The Orioles called up Hays on Sept. 7 that year after a season in which he was limited to 87 games by two separate injuries. In the spring, he dislocated his left thumb. During the season, he suffered a right hamstring sprain. On the farm in 2019 he batted .248/.299/.464.
None of that had anyone expecting what we saw with the Orioles. But Hays got fully healthy late in the year and came to Baltimore confident and ready to show he can be the center fielder of the future.
He sure looked like it.
“He’s done a great job,” manager Brandon Hyde said during the final week of the year. “We’ve talked about that you don’t want to put too much stock in September and spring training. But he’s shown us that he can play center field defense. And really like his at-bats - really competitive every at-bat and hitting the ball from line to line. Like the plate discipline that I didn’t see in spring training. He’s laying off some tough pitches, which is great to see. Making a really strong case that he can play here.”
Long before we found out Hays would not play in the Arizona Fall League after the O’s season as originally intended, I asked Hays about going to the AFL. Was he going just to get needed reps or with a specific plan devised by him and the team?
The latter was true.
“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.”
Hays further explained that he would need to do this while at the same time maintaining the aggressiveness that makes him a good hitter and good player.
“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.”
A pretty mature and smart assessment of his game by Hays, who obviously is not getting the chance to do this in the AFL. But after this interview, which took place Sept. 19, Hays drew five walks his last nine games after walking twice in his first 11 games.
Even before he would get to the AFL - which of course he never did - Hays seemed to become a bit more selective and put in practice something he had intended to work on in the AFL. Maybe that is one of several reasons the Orioles elected to not have Hays get extra at-bats in Arizona.
Not only did he show impressive tools and put up stats, he was a bit more selective at the plate as well. In the small sample sizes in the majors in 2017 and 2019, Hays had a 3.2 walk rate and 25.4 strikeout rate in 2017. This year those numbers were 9.3 and 17.3. Among Orioles who got 70 or more plate appearances this year, the 9.3 walk rate would tie for sixth-best on the team.
It is interesting that Hays - again in a small sample - produced better numbers in September against right-handed pitchers. He batted .419 (18-for-43) against right-handers and .120 (3-for-25) against left-handers. He also hit .417 (5-for-12) with nine RBIs with runners in scoring position.
In a span of 21 games, Hays seemed to go from promising prospect whose 2019 season was again derailed by injuries to showing he can be the center fielder of the future. He did that by flashing talent we had seen before and mixing in a mature approach on offense, one that let him swing at hittable pitches, chase less and walk more.
It was very promising indeed.