Hard as it is to believe now, it’s been more than three years since Austin Hays stormed through the minor leagues with 32 home runs between then-High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie to become the first player of his 2016 draft class to appear in MLB at the tail end of the 2017 season.
As things worked out, that 2017 debut for Hays was one of the poorer decisions of the Dan Duquette tenure. The attempt to spark the offense for a 2017 Orioles team that finished with 75 wins ended up with Hays playing poorly for three weeks. The call-up put him on the 40-man roster two years sooner than he “needed” to be for Rule 5 draft protection purposes with no benefit to the Orioles when he was hurt and struggling over the next two seasons.
Fortunately for Hays and for Orioles fans, that wasn’t the end of the story. Mike Elias and company did not overlook Hays when they took over, giving him a September call-up in 2019 where Hays ended up being exactly what Duquette might have hoped two years earlier.
This time a year ago, the question of how Hays would perform over a full season was one of the more interesting storylines to me heading into last season. We all know how that turned out. The global pandemic that’s still claiming lives shortened the season to 60 games, and even those 60 games didn’t see Hays active the whole time. He suffered a fractured rib in early August and eventually missed a month of action.
For Hays, there was a before and an after. His first 19 games before he went on the injured list were terrible, with Hays hitting just .203/.273/.246. His only home run in that time was an inside-the-park race that resulted from the Phillies defense totally screwing up but still managing to not have an error charged to them. Then, in 14 games after returning from that injury, Hays batted .377/.404/.585.
Which of these is the real Hays? I remain interested in finding out heading into the 2021 season. Here’s hoping that nothing comes along to stop us from getting an answer. And also let’s hope that the answer is good, because Hays, who isn’t a free agent until after the 2025 season, would be great to have as a building block towards the next good Orioles team.
This is what three of the big publicly available projection systems see for Hays:
- ZiPS: .266/.306/.442
- Steamer: .255/.303/.443 (both on Fangraphs)
- Marcel: .265/.335/.435 (Baseball Reference)
What’s interesting about this trio of projections is that ZiPS and Steamer both think that Hays will end up with an OPS similar to what he’s managed across a streaky MLB career to date. Hays has hit .272/.320/.424 - a .744 OPS - over his 73 big league games. So they’re projecting that Hays will more or less do what he’s done already, just with fewer walks and more dingers.
It’s not a bad prediction to make for just about any player that he will keep doing more or less what he’s already done, or at least what he’s done lately. If Hays ends up being just an OK hitter while playing some decent center field defense, that might be below the lofty hopes from his 2017 ascent, but it’s not a bad outcome either.
The case for the over
If Hays can put the kind of hot streaks together like he did for 21 games in 2019 and his final 14 games in 2020, without the disastrously poor performance from his 20 games in 2017 or his first 19 games in 2020, then he can exceed the ZiPS projected OPS without too much trouble. As far as whether he’s capable of that, well, that’s what the poll is about, isn’t it? You have to decide!
The case for the under
I’ve been writing about the Orioles for long enough to know that when you have to start with “if” before speculating about something good that might happen, you’re going to end up disappointed a lot of the time. A number of the “ifs” may hit for individual players, but they will not all do so.
Even when Hays was succeeding in the minors, he only had a walk rate in the 4% range. There were only 11 players who qualified for the batting title in 2020 who had a walk rate below 5%. In the last full season of 2019, there were 12 players below 5%. It is possible to succeed like that, but it’s difficult. Maybe Hays will be one who can beat the odds. On the other hand, maybe he won’t.
Make your pick
If you want to know “Why ZiPS?” take a look at the first post in this series. So far, 63% of voters believe that Trey Mancini will exceed his ZiPS projected OPS. A strong 95% majority sees John Means going under his ZiPS ERA of 4.90.
The only polls I’ll revisit at season’s end are the ones where a hitter takes at least 200 plate appearances, a reliever throws at least 25 innings, or a starter throws at least 60 innings as Orioles. That’s about a third of a season. If someone gets hurt or gets traded before they can play that much, it won’t be very interesting to see if they beat their projected performance or not.
In the event of Hays landing at exactly a .747 OPS, the tie will go to the under.
What are your hopes for Hays this season? Do you think he can even stay healthy enough to play? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Will Austin Hays go over or under his ZiPS projected .747 OPS in the 2021 season?
This poll is closed