The 2020 season for Orioles outfielder Austin Hays included a few firsts. He made the opening day roster for the first time. He hit his first inside-the-park home run and he went to the injured list because he was hit by a pitch for the first time.
The last few seasons have seen Hays battle various ailments and injuries. A player that has said he didn’t deal with injuries in high school and college has had a steady stream in pro ball. He spent time on the injured list at Double-A in 2018, Triple-A in 2019 and the majors in 2020.
He has something in common with pitcher Hunter Harvey. They are both former top 100 prospects and often it is said of both, “if they can just stay healthy.”
During the shortened 2020 season, Hays hit .279/.328/.393 with an OPS of .722 in 33 games and 134 plate appearances. He got off to a slow start before he went to the IL. In 77 plate appearances, he was batting .203/.273/.246. But in 57 plate appearances late in the year, after a month of being out, he batted. 377/.404/.585 with a .988 OPS.
Between the injury issues and the inconsistent performance, it is easy to understand some fans may have questions and/or concerns about the 25-year-old right-handed hitter.
But when you see how he played the last two Septembers, you also get a glimpse of Hays at his best. And it’s impressive.
If he can just stay healthy ...
I think he can and will, and if you are to label or project certain players as keepers on a rebuilding team - core pieces to build around - Hays is that for me.
His first full season on the farm in 2017 - when he did stay healthy - was something special. Between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie, he batted .329/.365/.593 with 32 doubles, five triples, 32 homers and 95 RBIs. He was the Orioles’ Minor League Player of the Year. He was a finalist for the Baseball America Player of the Year nationally. The final five included Hays and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the winner, Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. He was keeping good company and he earned the accolades.
I was in Toronto on Sept. 23, 2019 when Hays became the first major league rookie to have five or more RBIs, a stolen base and an outfield assist in the same game. He also made a great catch that night. It was a special game for him.
With the re-emergence of Cedric Mullins this year and with players like Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna still yet to reach the majors, Hays is going to have to perform to both reclaim and keep a starting spot in the O’s outfield.
But he brings a well-rounded package of tools that is impressive. He can hit for average and power, run above average and is a solid defender with a good arm. It doesn’t count for much now, but his resume of being a highly ranked O’s prospect is long.
Beyond that, the energy he brings to the team is needed and important. Some feel he brings too much intensity and might need to dial it back at times. But that energy and intensity help make Hays a good player. I think dialing it back would be hard to do.
Which player is the real Hays?
The one who looked so good when he was healthy in 2017 and late in the year in 2019 and 2020? Or the one that struggled early this season and that hit just .248 in 87 games on the farm before his big September with the Orioles last year?
I’ve seen enough talent and production from Hays - both on the farm and in Baltimore - to consider him a key player going forward. If he does get the chance to continue to start for this team, it is up to him to prove such an assessment as correct.