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Who is Austin Hays? We’re still not sure.

The rookie center fielder started off hot, got beaned in the ribs and missed a month, then had a decent end to the 2020 season.

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MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

One year ago, Austin Hays was a September call-up coming off a stellar month of solid hitting and flashy defense that had Orioles fans—and this blog—a little bit excited:

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. … 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.

Well, here we are, a year gone by, another September passed, and it’s not clear that we know much more about Austin Hays than we did this time in 2019.

To be very clear, this is mostly not his fault. Player evals were always bound to be shaky in a Covid-shortened season lasting just 60 games—and all the shakier for a guy who missed a month in August-September with a fractured rib. Still, Hays puzzled us in 2020.

For one thing, we’re still not sure he can keep himself healthy. Hays is a blast to watch, and he brings an incredible passion to the field. Sometimes that brings you joyful highlight-reel plays like this one:

But Hays has often ended up on the shelf due to injury, and it may be due to his always being dialed up to 11, like when he injured his thumb last spring in Norfolk sliding into a base. You can’t exactly blame him for getting hit in the ribs, but in his year-end roundup, the Athletic’s Dan Connolly suggested that the rash of injuries is at least partly self-inflicted:

I really like what Hays brings, but he needs to be better at knowing when to hit the gas and when to pump the brakes. Or he’s gonna be on the IL for a spell every year.

Another question is his bat, which is streaky, to say the least. This season, it was a tale of two halves for him. Prior to the injury, he struggled to a .203/.273/.246 slash line in 77 plate appearances. But in the 57 appearances after, he hit an impressive .377/.404/.585. Average those out and you have a solidly ordinary line of .279/.328/.393 to go with a slightly below-average 98 OPS+. Maybe that’s the “real” Hays, but it sure is hard to say.

A few nice signs emerge from Hays’ peripherals, though. Since 2017, his contact rate in the zone has ticked consistently up (from 71% in 2017 to 85.1% in 2019 to 89.7% in 2020), while his whiff percentage has dropped (37% to 25.9% to 20.2% this season).

He’s hitting offspeed pitches better, too. In 2019, Hays was predominantly a fastball hitter, with a .400 average on fastballs but only a .100 and .200 average on offspeed pitches and breaking balls, respectively. This season, he saw a similar pitch mix, but that breakdown is near-even (a .286 average on fastballs, .250 on breaking balls, and .294 on offspeed) in a way that suggests Hays could be more than just a utility guy.

The biggest question of all remains what the Orioles outfield will look like next season. When Hays went on the IL on August 14, the guys surrounding him in the outfield were Dwight Smith Jr. and Anthony Santander. By the time he got back, neither was on the roster (for different reasons). Instead, you had the stunning bat and not-so-treacherous-as-advertised glove of Ryan Mountcastle in left, plus the out-of-nowhere resurgence of Cedric Mullins in center, who worked his way back from Double-A Bowie this season, got handed the everyday job when Hays went down, and put up a perfectly decent .271/.315/.723 line in 48 games.

Has Mullins hit Hays out of a job? Probably not. Offense-wise, Hays has the higher ceiling, with more raw power. Still, Mullins endeared himself to many this season with his sharp instincts and small-ball ability. He stole seven bases in nine tries (Hays, meanwhile, went two-for-five), and, in case you hadn’t heard, had more bunt hits than many teams).

Between the two defensively, it seems like a wash, given the limited data. BaseballReference gives Hays a narrow edge over Mullins in dWAR (0.3 to 0.1), but thinks more highly of Mullins’ range. BaseballSavant claims Mullins is the above-average fielder in terms of success on balls of above-average difficulty (75% for the former and 52.9% for the latter). Meanwhile, FanGraphs gives Hays a clear advantage in UZR/150 (5.8 for Hays to -0.9 for Mullins).

Overall, it seems right to guess that where Hays plays next season depends less on what Hays or Mullins showed in 2020 than on what the outfield candidates look like come spring. By then, Hays will be competing with Mullins, Anthony Santander, DJ Stewart, Ryan Mountcastle, as well as, hopefully, prospect Ryan McKenna, and a fully-healthy Trey Mancini. Of course, for Hays and Mullins, it helps that they’re the only two proven candidates with the ability to play all three outfield spots.

On September 19 this season, Hays hit a solo home run against the Rays and later told MLB’s Joe Trezza, “I need to continue to prove myself. I am a young player, so every at-bat and every single inning and every game is just another opportunity to show what I can do.”

It would have been awesome if Hays could have broken out in 2020, but hey, it was a weird year. He should get another chance to do what he does best next spring.