On Tuesday, Austin Hays told reporters over Zoom that what he hopes for most this 2021 season is to stay healthy and put together 160 games over a full season. A healthy Hays, who’s played just 74 games for Baltimore since 2017, would be fantastic. But as for the 160 games … well, I wonder if he’d settle for going splitsies?
Austin Hays had an up-and-down 2020. (Then again, didn’t we all.) Twelve games into the season, he got plunked in the ribs by a 96-mph fastball. He played through it, but over the next seven games, the pain got worse, and the team had to send him to the IL. At the time he was batting just .203, and his power was so nonexistent that his slugging (.246) was actually lower than his OBP (.273). Hays had to sit for a month, recovering. And it was a big month, in a 60-game season. But he came back, on September 14th, with a fire lit under his ass. Hays hit .377 with 20 hits and a .988 OPS in his final 14 games.
Given the short season, this late-season performance would have been enough to presumptively sew up the starting centerfield job in 2021. Except for the fact that, over that month, Hays’ replacement in CF played some of the best baseball of his life.
After the 2019 season ended, Cedric Mullins was toast. He’d posted a dismal .094 average in 22 games with Baltimore that season before being demoted to Triple-A … and then again, down to Bowie. It must have been dizzying to drop off the team radar that fast. But give Mullins enormous credit, because he made his swing adjustments and bided his time in the minors, and by the time Hays was out with the fractured rib, Mullins was ready to take the opportunity and run with it.
In 48 games in 2020, Mullins played some of the most fun baseball Baltimore fans got to see all season. If you like small ball, Mullins was the man for you, with a team-leading seven stolen bases and a league-leading nine bunt hits. He helped craft an offensive identity for Baltimore, which has gone from a feast-or-famine offense in the mid-aughts to small-ball machine during the rebuild. Mullins also had some pop, crushing the Orioles’ longest homer of the year, a 427-foot blast to center. Above all, he showed that crucial skill for a leadoff man, the ability to “make things happen.”
So, what happens when both Mullins and Hays are healthy and playing? Well, last September, once Hays came back, the Orioles kept them both in the field, with Mullins playing 13 of 14 games at center (resting just once, for the top of a doubleheader), while Hays made all but one of his starts in left and right. This worked OK in 2020, with the injury to Anthony Santander and lots of doubts about Ryan Mountcastle’s ability to handle himself in the outfield. But hopefully both of those issues are past us in 2021, which means the outfield is a little crowded. In a good way.
The solution I can most easily envision is a four-man outfit of Santander, Mountcastle, and one of Hays or Mullins technically the “utility” glove, but in actuality doing more than just subbing in for doubleheaders or late innings. It might end up looking like the Tampa Bay Rays “starting rotation,” which is really a rotation by committee. So make the Orioles’ potential scheme an outfield by platoon.
There are a few good reasons why it works. First, although none of the Hays/Mullins/Santander trio really hits lefties well (cue the sad “I miss Hanser Alberto” refrain), Mullins hits them especially badly. Santander has .236/.259 career splits against lefty and righty starters, with fairly comparable power numbers. Hays is similar, with a .240/.286 average against lefties and righties, respectively, in his three seasons. Meanwhile, Mullins’ career mark is .242 against righties and an ugly .175 against lefties. (And before you say, “Well, he had a bad 2019,” consider that his splits in 2021 were even worse: .316 against right-handed starters and .077 versus lefties.)
Second, Mullins and Hays each have different strengths to their game, and we know manager Brandon Hyde likes versatility. Mullins brings grit, scrappiness, and the ability to get on base, steal, and manufacture runs. Plus his .271 average was not just better than expected, but pretty darn good for a glove-first defender. On the other side, Hays has more upside in the power department and is the more likely of the two to hit for average. You could envision a scheme whereby Hyde favors Hays on days the Orioles face a crafty lefty, with Mullins taking priority against the fireballing righties, where runners might prove scarce.
Third, although Mullins has the edge as the O’s best defender, with five outs above average per Statcast, the best defensive outfield is one featuring Hays, Mullins, and Santander, so it’s conceivable you see Hays and Mullins sharing outfield duties on some days, while Mountcastle gets some reps at DH.
There may be no area of the team where the Orioles are as young and exciting as in the outfield. An AL Rookie of the Year favorite in left, a Gold Glove finalist and power bat in right, and the dynamic combo of Mullins and Hays in center: if a few other things go right, this might have the makings of a pretty fun season.