When the Orioles and their fans think about some of the young hitters in their lineup producing in the future, as they did in 2021, Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle immediately come to mind. But outfielder Austin Hays should be in that mix, too. And long-term, he might prove to be the best player of this group.
He is certainly toolsy, as a scout might say. He’s got plenty of ways to beat you. With his bat and power. With his glove, arm and speed. Yep, plenty of tools.
O’s fans first got a real good look at Hays and his vast potential in his first full pro season. If you look at big years that players like Kyle Stowers, Adley Rutschman and Jordan Westburg had on the farm this year, Hays had a year to top all three in 2017.
Between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie, Hays batted .329/.365/.593/.958 with 32 homers, which was second-most in the minors, and 95 RBIs. That season moved him up to No. 21 on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects lists and to No. 23 by MLBPipeline.com.
Hays was a finalist for the Baseball America National Player of the Year award. It went to Ronald Acuña Jr., but Hays was a finalist with him and two future Toronto Blue Jays, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. So he was keeping very, very good company.
In the majors this year, with a strong finish to a season where he stayed on the field often, Hays batted .256/.308/.461/.769 with was 6 percent above the league average OPS. He produced 26 doubles, four triples, 22 homers and 71 RBIs in 131 games and 529 plate appearances.
Hays got real hot late in the year, raising his OPS from .686 on Aug. 24. In 30 games after Sept. 1 he batted .284/.352/.569/.921 with seven doubles, a triple, eight homers and 22 RBIs.
While Hays had a below-average walk rate of 5.3 percent for the entire year, his strikeout rate of 20.3 was also below-average. Among the 11 Orioles this year with 250 or more plate appearances, only Mullins (18.5) and Maikel Franco (16.6) had lower K rates. Put the ball in play and use that speed.
Some of the defensive metrics, for what it’s worth, were fans of Hays in left field. He was fifth among American League left fielders in Defensive Runs Saved and ranked first in SABR’s Defensive Index among AL left fielders, a metric that is used among other aspects to determine Gold Glove winners. Hays also recorded nine outfield assists.
On a team that did not produce a lot of clutch hits, Hays batted .333 with a team-leading .915 OPS when hitting with runners in scoring position.
And if we wanted to nitpick, we could point out that Hays strong season was driven to some measure by his stronger numbers at home (.852 OPS compared to .693 on road) and against lefties (.896 OPS to .683 versus right-handers). But guess what? Next year, he will play a lot of home games again and again face left-handers.
If he’s healthy, I don’t see Hays as a platoon player. Not when he can beat you on defense and with speed, no matter whether a lefty or righty is pitching. Plus, for his career, the difference is not as drastic as it was in 2021, with a .817 OPS versus southpaws and .729 against right-handers.
Hays was an impact player late this year for the Orioles.
“I love the way Haysie has really come on in the second half,” manager Brandon Hyde said during the season’s final series at Toronto. “That’s a huge boost for our organization, for him. A guy that’s getting regular playing time. We saw the flashes of what he could be, the kind of player, exciting player. Just had a tough time staying on the field. And for him to finish the season the way he is, to be able to stay on the field this second half and play almost every single day - I don’t even remember the last time I did give him a day off - it’s been awesome.
“It’s been awesome to see the at-bats getting better, the defense is extremely solid. I love the way he throws. It’s been a great development year for him and hopefully a confidence booster going into next season.”