This was projected to be a breakout season for Austin Hays. And midway through the summer, it was looking like anything but.
Hays’s fourth year in the major leagues was not going well. After an 0-for-4 day on June 22, his average sat at .219, and he looked like yet another prospect whose development had stalled - or, even worse, regressed.
Now it’s the middle of September, and it’s time for anyone evaluating Hays to be singing a different tune. A hitting streak that reached 18 games got the buzz, but really over the course of the second half, Hays has been reminding fans everywhere that he belongs in the outfield discussion for the next few years - and he’s been finishing the season on a roll that, if it continues into 2022, can only help carry him to the next step as a player.
That’s a big “if,” however. Over his short career in the majors, Hays has made a habit of finishing strong - but not always starting off again that way.
The hitting streak was impressive. From Aug. 24 to Sept. 11, Hays batted .364 with five home runs, 16 RBI and a 1.119 OPS. He showed all of the potential people have been seeing in him, and showcased a ceiling that wasn’t on display much in the first half of the season.
But a hitting streak is just that. Anyone can get hot. What counts for more is prolonged success, and Hays has spent the second half demonstrating that as well. Since the start of August, a span of 39 games and 153 at-bats, Hays has batted .281 with eight home runs and an .814 OPS. Projected over 162 games, that’s 33 home runs and 100 RBI.
That’s very encouraging news for Orioles fans, who spent the first part of the season wondering if the first wave of their positional prospects were floundering at the big league level. Instead, with Mountcastle (who has gone from a .198 average at the end of April to the front of the AL Rookie of the Year race) and Hays, Baltimore looks like it has two key, young pieces that are on the right track.
For Hays, the point of emphasis will be staying there. This won’t be the first time he has ended a season with the arrow pointing up. In 2019, he made it up to Baltimore for September and hit .309 for the month, batting .326 over his last 11 games and 46 at-bats...and then he started with the big club in 2020 and hit .192 over his first 15 games.
Later that season he ended in style again, hitting .375 over the final 15 games, a stretch covering 56 at-bats. The “Austin Hays, breakout star” watch was back on...and then he started with the aforementioned ice-cold first few months of 2021.
So Hays has work to do next season to prove this isn’t a fluke. At the same time, he’s shown more development as an overall player this season. He’s handled a much more intense role as far as playing time is concerned, his defense is better, and he’s hit for power more consistently - his slugging percentage is 60 points higher than it was last year, he’ll likely finish the season as a 20-homer hitter, and he’s shown the potential to be someone who can hit 25, perhaps even 30 home runs if he finally figures out beginning-to-end consistency on offense.
Hays’s role with the team still isn’t defined, because it’s not as clear as it was with Trey Mancini and is with Mountcastle what kind of player he’ll be. Whether his future is as a starter or a role player is a question, and Hays likely still has some doubts to ease.
This finish to the season, though, is what could help Hays go into the offseason with the foundation he needs to take a permanent step forward. That’s been where he’s come up short in recent years, but if he keeps this up in the remaining games of the season, he’ll have a good chance once again to buck the trend.