It was looking at first like a repeat of last year.
Austin Hays went into this season looking to build on the momentum of a strong season in 2021, and scuffled out of the gate. He was 2-for-21 to start the season, with one extra-base hit. It was enough to remind people watching of last year, when he struggled to a .234 average for the month of April before heating up, turning it around and salvaging his performance at the plate.
This time, though, Hays didn’t need to wait for May to find his swing.
Since the struggles of those first six games (a small sample, sure, but enough to plant a seed of doubt in the mind of a more insecure player), Hays has just been on a tear. He’s batted .375 with a 1.008 OPS in the 21 games since, a span covering 80 at-bats. In a season in which seemingly everyone’s seen their stats plummet due to a ball that’s harder to hit out of the ballpark, he’s up to .317 with an .876 OPS, lifted in a big way by a .391 on-base percentage.
The batting average is good for ninth in the American League. The on-base percentage is good for 10th. And he’s doing this in a park that has accomplished its goal in becoming less friendly to right-handed hitters.
It’s a great start to the season. But more than that, it’s a start that has pushed Hays into a starring role in the team’s lengthy rebuild.
Hays has never been surrounded by the fanfare and hype and aspirations that have followed some of the other young players that have come through the system and either arrived in Baltimore or reached its front porch. Ryan Mountcastle got some of it after raking at every step of the minor leagues. Adley Rutschman obviously has had it. Guys like Grayson Rodriguez, D.L. Hall and, a little further down the line, Gunnar Henderson have had it.
Hays was a bright prospect, without question. He was the team’s top-ranked prospect (ahead of Mountcastle) in 2018, but that was at the very end of the team’s competitive run, when the minor league cupboard was pretty bare before the organization was ripped down to the studs. By 2019 Mountcastle had passed him, Yusniel Diaz had arrived via trade and passed him, and ever since Hays arrived in Baltimore for good that year, he’s had something of a supporting role in the team’s youth movement: A part of the youth movement, sure. But perhaps not its focal point.
This season, though, Hays is showing he’s just as much a player to be excited about as any of the others who have gotten the headlines.
The 2021 season ended up showing that he was clearly on the right track. He flashed his power with 22 home runs, and showed his ability to hit consistently at the big league level by batting .264 in the second half of the season, and .279 over the last two months. Hays had answered any lingering doubters he may have had, considering he hadn’t played a full MLB season to that point. He had proven he was an everyday major league outfielder.
This year, however, he’s showing that he can be even more. Hays has been well above average in the quality of contact he’s had. He’s in the 67th percentile in hard-hit percentage, which is a way of saying he makes hard contact more often than two-thirds of MLB hitters. His expected batting average is in the 84th percentile. He’s hitting well, and it’s not an accident.
He’s also developed himself into a difficult batter to pitch to based on how he utilizes the whole field. He’s pulled all three of his home runs, but he’s gone the other way for 10 of his 34 hits. He’s hit 67.1 percent of his batted balls either in the middle of the field or to the right side; the major league average, meanwhile, is 63.2. He’s pulling the ball 32.9 percent of the time, which is a lower rate than he’s had in any other season. He was at 38.4 last year, and even though he’s using the whole field better than he did last season, his quality of contact has improved as well; his hard hit percentage last year was 39.2. This year, it’s 43.9.
This is a way of saying that the numbers back up what our eyes have told us: that Hays has become a player who is comfortable both going with an outside pitch to right for a single, or getting his hands inside a pitch tailing in for a double or home run. He’s looking more like a complete hitter each year.
As a result, he’s looking more like a dangerous bat in the middle of what will hopefully soon be a fairly dangerous lineup. Hays may not be the top-10 pick blue-chipper that some other Orioles prospects are, but it’s become clear he’s a pretty big part of this operation.