SARASOTA, Fla. - There is almost certainly no reason to have any concern about a player in spring training after only 18 at-bats. But Orioles outfielder Austin Hays, who had a big spring last year, is batting .111 so far at 2-for-18. He does have four RBIs and he feels like the hits will be coming shortly.
He’s still penciled in as the center fielder and likely leadoff hitter come opening day, March 26 in Baltimore against the New York Yankees.
“I actually feel really good,” Hays said before Thursday’s game against Minnesota. “I’m feeling good at the plate, seeing the ball well and I’m having good at-bats. Walk-to-strikeout ratio (4-to-4) is right where it needs to be right now. I’m having competitive at-bats. The approach is there, it’s just not necessarily showing up yet. If I continue to swing at good pitches and stay within the zone, it’s only a matter of time before it starts showing up.”
On Wednesday in Jupiter, Hays drew two walks in four plate appearances and felt that was a good sign.
“For sure. I’ve always been someone that is very aggressive and likes to swing early in the count,” he said. “So for me to be able to show I can go deep in the counts and I can stay within the zone, especially with two strikes, that’s huge for me. That is part of my growing process and taking that next step as a mature hitter.”
I’ve talked to Hays before about how he wants to swing only at hittable strikes and lay off borderline pitches, especially early in the counts. If he can improve his walk rate, he’ll take that, too.
“I think the walks will be a byproduct of me staying within the zone,” he said. “So I’m not necessarily looking to take more pitches or see more pitches. I’m just trying to swing at pitches early in the count that I can barrel and hit hard. (As) opposed to just free swinging, so to speak, and kind of hacking at everything. Just being a little more in tune with my plan and my approach, being disciplined within it.”
Hays has been a leadoff hitter this spring and that could certainly continue in the regular season. Hays said he’d like that.
“When I was in Frederick, I was going back and forth, Wilkie (Stevie Wilkerson) and I, with batting first and second. I think about half my games in Frederick, I hit leadoff. Mounty (Ryan Mountcastle) was hitting in the two-hole. I’ve kind of hit all over. I’ve hit in the bottom of the lineup, at the top and the middle. I would prefer to be at the top of the lineup. You get more at-bats,” he said with a laugh.
While Hays’ batting average is not where he likes it just yet, his defense has been very solid under the Florida sun. He’s already made several diving plays and others where he showed off his speed and range in center.
Hays explained that he had to change his defensive pre-pitch stance to more straight up toward the infield when he plays in center. When he played in right field, the team had him open his stance while waiting for the pitch more toward right-center. There was more ground to cover going that way and he had a stance with a head start heading toward the gap. If a ball was hit down the line, he had to adjust. It’s different playing center, when he may need to go to left-center or right-center gap quickly.
“I think the biggest thing for me was some of the angles, going to my left,” he said. “Because a lot of times when I was in right field, I would be shifted over (in his defensive stance) to the opposite field, so if there were anything hit over my head, it would usually be over my right shoulder.”
But he wants to be every bit as aggressive on defense as he is on offense. You can see even in these spring games, he’s in attack mode out there.
“Yeah, I want to go get every ball until someone calls me off,” said Hays. “That is what is great about this team, we have some natural center fielders playing other positions. So everyone is going after the ball hard which you just love to see that on defense. You want guys to get the ball that aren’t scared. I love center. You get twice as many balls. Get to both directions. It’s been really fun.”
And while a safe assumption is that he’s the starting center fielder come opening day, he is not making that assumption.
“I still have a lot to prove. It’s a little bit different (this spring), but for most the part, very similar in that I still have a lot to prove,” he said.
To say the least, Hays fits in great in the Baltimore clubhouse. He’s around many young players he came up with through the farm system. It’s a camp where young players seem to be loose, but also intense, as they prepare for the new season.
“Yeah, absolutely. We do a lot of competitions on the field to grow relationships,” said Hays. “Just have a competitive mindset each day. Even like (Thursday), I’m not playing in the game and I know that. It’s my workday. I know we’ll do a game out there with the machine or on breaking balls or something, situational awareness, baserunning stuff. I think little things like that really help to be competitive every day. Especially with a younger group that is a little more inexperienced than other teams. So we have to work harder at some of the little things that other people are more crisp at.”