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Orioles prospect season in review: Austin Hays

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Austin Hays did enough in his September call-up to make himself one of the more interesting Orioles prospects for next year.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

An Orioles season that was threatening to turn into an uninspiring limp to the finish line received a big jolt of excitement when Austin Hays was a late addition to the group of September call-ups. Hays made the most of the opportunity, playing so well that it was not hard to get carried away and imagine a better Orioles future with Hays as a big part of it.

This is not the first time that an Orioles fan might have had reason to believe this about Hays. The O’s third round pick in the 2016 draft, out of Jacksonville University, leapfrogged a lot of higher-drafted players to become the first player in his draft class to make it to MLB.

The O’s, then under Dan Duquette, had Hays skip the Low-A level to begin 2017. He laid waste to the High-A competition for two months, with a .956 OPS in 64 games for Frederick that earned him a promotion to Bowie. In another 64 games at the Double-A level, Hays posted a .960 OPS. He had 16 home runs at each stop, or 32 in the five months of the minor league season.

That 2017 performance earned Hays a September call-up that season. It’s easy to say in hindsight that this was a mistake since Hays batted just .217/.238/.317 in 20 games that year. The Orioles thought he could be their September spark and they were mistaken - or at least, they were mistaken about what year Hays would be capable of being the September spark.

Prior to the 2018 season, the prospect-industrial complex took note of Hays’s 2017 performance. He ranked as high as #21 on the Baseball America top prospects list, and was #23 on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 ranking that spring.

The hype was real, though mindful of how he looked, the O’s started him back at Bowie, where Hays ended up scuffling for two months before missing most of June and July with an ankle injury that required offseason surgery.. When the 2018 minor league season ended, Hays had a .242/.271.432 batting line for Bowie. That does not get you another September in MLB.

Hays was one of the players whose fate I was most curious about before this season began. What would a new Orioles GM, Mike Elias, and his new team of front office people make of Hays’s 2017 highs and 2018 lows? When spring training rolled around, Hays made a great first impression, with five home runs in 12 games. This was, according to Baseball Reference, mostly against Double-A-level competition.

The Elias way, as O’s fans learned this spring, is not to put a ton of stock into amazing spring training results, preferring instead to rely on the predictive value of minor league performance. So back to minor league camp for Hays, where, within days, he hurt his thumb while sliding into a base. He did not find his way back into Bowie games until late May, though it only took him two weeks there to show that he was at least ready for Triple-A Norfolk.

The injury bug struck Hays again at Norfolk, with a hamstring issue dropping him onto the shelf again for close to three weeks. However, 2019 did not turn into a lost season like 2018 did. Hays’s overall line with Norfolk this season doesn’t scream for a call-up: .254/.304/.454. Hidden in the season total is the fact that Hays finished the Norfolk season strong, batting .294/.351/.490 from August 6 to September 2.

This proved to be enough to get him back to the MLB level. It didn’t hurt that center field was being patrolled in Baltimore by Anthony Santander and Stevie “Dr. Poo Poo” Wilkerson, neither of whom are center fielders by trade. There was room to plug in Hays, he still needed some at-bats for the year due to his injuries, and he had finished strong enough to deserve it. As we now know, things went much better this time.

You don’t have to look very hard to see what was impressive about Hays’s September. He batted .309/.373/.574 in 21 games. That’s a small sample size, to be sure, but it’s better to be able to be excited about three good weeks in MLB than to have to fret about three bad weeks. That’s especially true because in his last big league stint and his early minors action, Hays didn’t walk much, and his 75 PA this season saw his strikeout rate down and his walk rate way up to 9.3%.

It remains to be seen how that will shake out over a full season when facing rosters that aren’t loaded up with lesser September call-ups than Hays. For that matter, it remains to be seen if Hays can keep himself healthy for a full season. There’s no doubt that he plays hard, which gets him amazing catches and the occasional hustle double or infield single, but down that road also lies nicks, bumps, and bruises that might cost a player time.

I mention this mostly to keep myself from getting carried away with gushing praise, because I’m still thinking about that catch where he robbed Vlad Jr.:

Combine that with his September hitting and I just want to imagine that the Orioles center fielder of the future is now also their center fielder of the present and that the rebuilding project is that much closer to entering a more fun phase.

Hays was worth 0.7 bWAR and 0.9 fWAR in his 21 games this season. Over a full season, that puts him in the 5-7 win range. He’s probably not that good, but it’d still be a lot of fun even if he ended up as “just” a 3-4 win sort of player.

By the way, whether by coincidence or design, Hays ended the season with 128 big league at-bats under his belt. A player maintains rookie status until he hits 130 at-bats. This means that he will be eligible for 2020 Rookie of the Year voting. Maybe I got a little carried away after all.