This article is part of the Know Your Orioles 40-man series, which features an article about each player currently on the Orioles roster. There will be one every weekday until we run out of players.
While the Orioles’ roster is littered with areas on the field that absolutely, positively, desperately need help, outfield is relatively low on the list.
Cedric Mullins is coming off of an MVP-caliber season in center field. Anthony Santander is plenty serviceable in right. Ryan Mountcastle and Trey Mancini, should they find themselves making positional changes to the outfield, would bring big bats with them.
And last year, the Orioles saw that, in Austin Hays, they have another piece to feel pretty good about.
Hays’s 2021 season, his second full season in Baltimore (though his first playing a full slate of games), met expectations across the board in pretty much every way you could break it down. He batted a steady .256, with a .769 OPS. He clubbed 22 home runs and saw his slugging percentage climb 68 points from .393 the year before to .461. His WAR of 3.1, while unremarkable, was the third-highest on the team, and the highest of any position player save for Mullins.
The 2021 season was about Hays becoming a true everyday ballplayer. And he showed he’s up for the challenge.
This was good news for the 26-year-old, who has been steadily rising in the system since he was drafted in the third round out of Jacksonville University in 2016. Hays first began impressing during an eerily consistent 2017 spent in High-A and Double-A (64 games, 262 at-bats, .328 average, .956 OPS in High-A; 64 games, 261 at-bats, .330 average, .960 OPS in Double-A), and rose to becoming the Orioles’ No. 1 prospect by the 2018 season.
Hays made his Orioles debut in 2017 and was unimpressive, but his 2019 return turned some heads. He batted .309 in 21 games and 68 at-bats, with four home runs and a .947 OPS. He played 33 of the team’s 60 games in 2020, batting .279 with a .722 OPS, and even though his average dropped last year, his power improvements made up for it.
Hays’s performance becomes even more encouraging when you consider that, on June 22, his average was at .219 and he was looking a little overmatched by big league pitching. In the 88 games and 328 at-bats afterward, however, Hays hit .274 with an .813 OPS, and his 16 home runs and 53 RBI project to 29 and 98, respectively, over 162 games.
If that last two-thirds or so of his season is any indication, Hays figured it out.
He still has improvements to make going into this season. Plate discipline is a big one; Hays walked only 28 times in 131 games last year, which isn’t a good rate for anyone but is especially low for someone looking to hit out of the top of the lineup. Being a free swinger and hitting .300 is one thing, but being a free swinger and batting .256 is another. Hays is going to have to expand the ways in which he gets on base.
But as far as the main question goes — can the guy play or not — there’s definitely something there. In addition to showing he can handle major league pitching, Hays has progressed as an outfielder as well, with a good instinct on fly balls and a strong arm. Baseball-Reference has his defensive WAR measured at a 1.0, Fangraphs has his UZR measured at a 6.9 (5 is above average, 10 is great, for a point of reference), and he made only one error in 254 chances.
There’s an intangible quality at play as well. Hays began to take on an identity with this Orioles team. He’s a scrappy energy guy who plays with a high level of grit and enthusiasm, and is someone who has started to show a knack for making things happen on the field, whether it’s stretching a hit, making a play in the field or getting aggressive on the basepaths and forcing the defense to make a play.
Not an All-Star — not yet, anyway — but someone the Orioles can feel comfortable in pegging for their lineup.
End of season prediction:
Hays won’t fix all that ails him at the moment, but his numbers will tick up as he builds on the momentum he had going at the end of the season. Expecting a breakout season would be too much, but the goal for Hays should be finding more consistency than he demonstrated last year. Expect him to bat in the .265-.275 range, with home run totals around 25. He’s a lock for the big league roster, and if he continues to improve, he’ll be a good bet for that mystical next great Orioles team that — hopefully — is looming on the horizon.
Previously: Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Isaac Mattson, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker, Rougned Odor, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Kyle Bradish, Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Díaz, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Kevin Smith, Terrin Vavra, D.L. Hall, Jahmai Jones, Bruce Zimmermann, Mike Baumann, Ryan McKenna, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Jorge López, Ramón Urías, Dillon Tate, Paul Fry, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells, Cole Sulser, Jorge Mateo, Tanner Scott, DJ Stewart, Ryan Mountcastle, Tyler Wells
Tomorrow: Anthony Santander