Austin Hays was 12 at-bats shy of 500 this past season. Now that’s progress. But still, the notion that Hays would have a breakout campaign simply by avoiding injury and playing full time proved false.
Entering the 2021 season, expectations for Austin Hays were similar to the previous couple of years — minimize the injuries and establish himself as one of the O’s everyday outfielders, maybe even the everyday center fielder.
As a matter of fact, Hays and Cedric Mullins were sharing center field duties this past spring in Sarasota. But once the regular season began, Hays played the first three games before succumbing to injury. That allowed Mullins to run away with the center field job.
There were actually multiple stints on the injured list for Hays in the first half of the year, including a right-hamstring strain that put him on the shelf for about 15 days. He stayed healthy for roughly a month before going back on the IL for his other hamstring. Hays was activated on June 11 and avoided the injured list from that point on.
Prior to this year, Hays’ career high for games played in a season was 33. He shattered that number in 2021 with 131 games played. In that sense, this year was a big step forward. And while Hays set new career marks in a couple offensive categories, that part of his game was inconsistent.
In terms of overall batting numbers, Hays was solid if unspectacular. He finished with a triple-slash line of .256/.308/.461, along with a .769 OPS, and a 106 OPS+. The following numbers were among the many career highs for Hays in 2021: 73 runs scored, 125 hits, 26 doubles, four triples, 22 home runs, and 71 RBI.
Hays did some of his best work with the bat in the final two months of the season, hitting .274 with four home runs in August, and .284 with eight homers in September/October. He also hit much better at Camden Yards (.852 OPS) than on the road (.693 OPS).
For those of you who are into WAR, here’s the breakdown for Hays in 2021: Baseball Reference gave him a mark of 3.2, including an offensive WAR of 1.5 and defensive WAR of 1.1. Fangraphs marked Hays as 2.4 wins above replacement.
On defense, the eye test showed that Hays was rock solid in the outfield corners this year. He displayed quickness, a cannon for an arm, and good instincts chasing down fly balls. According to Fangraphs, Hays put up an overall 6.9 UZR in the outfield this year. That includes 3.0 in left field — where he spent the bulk of his time — along with a 4.6 UZR in right, and -0.7 in center.
With Cedric Mullins thriving in center, it’s a luxury to have a former center fielder like Hays in one of the corners. Plus, there’s hope that by limiting his time in center, Hays can cut down on some of the wear and tear on his body.
Switching back to offense, a big talking point about Hays’ this season was batting splits when facing left-handed pitchers versus right-handed pitchers. Hays had a tough go of it with right-handers this past season, including an OPS over 200 points lower against righties (.683) than lefties (.896). But this drastic difference is a relatively new development, so it’s kind of early to pigeonhole Hays as a platoon guy.
Over the course of his entire MLB career, Hays is slashing .252/.308/.421 in 516 plate appearances against righties. In 285 career PA’s versus lefties, he’s hitting .279/.319/.498.
Looking back at a couple specific years, Hays actually had inferior numbers against left-handers in 2017 and 2019. But those are small sample sizes, with Hays having only played 20 games in 2017 and 21 games in 2019.
In 2020, Hays’ OPS splits were nearly the same: .720 versus right-handers and .729 against lefties. That year, he slugged better against left-handers and hit for a better averages against right-handers.
If he plays a full season next year — which would be just the second full season of his career — and continues to struggle mightily against righties, that’s another thing. Let’s wait and see, though, because he’s still only 26 years old.
According to Spotrac, Hays is currently making the major league minimum and will be arbitration eligible for the first time in 2023. The earliest he can become a free agent is 2026.
While the Orioles are flush with young outfielders, Hays has done enough to enter spring training next year as one of the starters. He’ll need to build on his slash line at the plate and become a more consistent hitter, but he’s got the tools. Also, it goes without saying that he needs to stay healthy.
The bottom line is that Hays can be a dependable, everyday corner outfielder for the next good Orioles team. At the very least, he’s a strong platoon bat with plus defense.
Hays certainly has room for improvement with plate patience and consistency. But his upside is a top or middle-of-the-order hitter with good power and a decent batting average. Hopefully, he can put together a true breakout season as soon as next year, and be talked about as a bonafide cornerstone of the O’s rebuild.
Previous 2021 Orioles player reviews: Valaika/Gutierrez/Mateo, Paul Fry/César Valdez, Watkins/Greene/etc., Ramón Urias, Dean Kremer, Tanner Scott, DJ Stewart, Tyler Wells, Anthony Santander, Cole Sulser, Bruce Zimmermann
Tomorrow: Pedro Severino and Austin Wynns