There was a time when Austin Hays was a talented but injury-riddled Orioles top prospect who couldn’t stay on the field.
Drafted in 2016 out of Jacksonville University, Hays hustled his way through the ranks of the O’s farm system, jumping from High-A to Double-A to the big leagues in one season alone. He’d make his MLB debut in September ’17, going on to be named the O’s MiLB Player of the Year that year and MLB Pipeline’s 23rd-best prospect in baseball heading into 2018. According to Pipeline, Hays was predicted to be “on the fast track to becoming an impact, everyday player at the highest level.”
For the next three seasons, that prediction looked, frankly, a little iffy. Hays was supposed to compete for the right-field job in spring training in 2018 but ended up losing almost the whole year to an ankle injury that eventually required surgery. 2019 brought Hays a sprained left thumb, and a shortened 2020 season was shortened further for him by a rib injury.
Heading into 2021, the O’s onetime No. 1 prospect had played just 74 games for the big-league team in three seasons. The sort of guy who flings his body around and “gives 145% every single play,” Hays was fearless, certainly, but (uh-oh, that dreaded label) was he also injury-prone?
The short answer: we can’t totally dispel this rumor because it appears to be true. It’s not like he’s changed his approach. After all, why leg out a routine ground ball when you can dive headfirst into first base, get stepped on by a cleat, and keep playing the next few games with stitches in your left hand? That was in 2022, and he missed no time with the injury.
In 2021, Hays played in a career-best 131 games, and it was later revealed that he played most of the year with an abdominal hernia. “I dove for a ball in May,” Hays explained. “I tore where your ab connects to your pelvis. It was completely torn on my left side, and it was beginning to tear on my right side. That’s why I had the surgery when the season was over. That was the goal, to make it to the end of the year.”
“He’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever been around,” said Orioles manager Brandon Hyde (and recently-crowned AL Manager of the Year) back in June. “His pain tolerance is incredible.”
But the question isn’t whether Austin Hays is brave, it’s whether his injuries have impacted his output as a ballplayer. In ’21, Hays had a good year at the plate, including good second-half numbers. But unsurprisingly, his speed and fielding suffered. The next year, Hays played out the second half despite hamstring injuries, but his offensive numbers fell off the table (1st half: .270/.325/.454/.779 versus 2nd half: .220/.276/.349/.626).
Could he stay healthy in 2023? This past June, Hyde praised the right fielder for having “turned himself into a big-time professional where he has a routine of getting ready to play, takes care of his body, understands what it’s like to be an everyday major league player. He has stayed away from the injury bug, and he’s done a great job.”
For Hays, this translated into a career year: a .275 average, .325 OBP, .444 slugging and .769 OPS and 16 home runs in 144 games. He outperformed his preseason projections, especially when it came to contact. He also put up career highs in doubles, runs, hits (143), extra-base hits (54) and multi-hit games (40).
Hays busted out at the plate early on, leading the AL in batting average (.327) at one point in June. That led to a first-time career milestone: in July, he was given his first All-Star nomination. Initially selected as a reserve, Hays made it into the starting lineup after Aaron Judge and Mike Trout were ruled out with injuries. It was a nice confirmation of the former top prospect’s high ceiling and the potential player he could be.
What clouded this happy result was an even worse version of the pattern sinking his second half. Here are Hays’ 2023 season splits:
1st Half: .314/.355/.498/.853, 78 G, 9 HR, 36 RBI in 310 PAs
2nd Half: .228/.289/.378/.667, 66 G, 7 HR, 31 RBI in 256 PAs
What happened? It’s not clear: his average dipped to .162 in July but bounced back to average levels in August (.272) and September (.244). Hays also went 3-for-11 with a double during the American League Division Series versus Texas. Hays has admitted that he can get “pull happy” at times and get into bad habits where he misses good fastballs and chases breaking balls out of the zone. An aggressive hitter, he can fall behind in the count and chase pitches. But this year swinging at the first pitch worked well for him: he hit .456 with an OPS of 1.163.
He also earned deserved props for his defense while patrolling one of the largest left fields in the game, getting named an AL Gold Glove finalist along with Toronto’s Daulton Varsho and Cleveland’s Steven Kwan (who won his second award in a row). Hays ranked third on the O’s with five Defensive Runs Saved, behind only Gunnar Henderson and Cedric Mullins. Hays’ arm value ranked in the 91st percentile of the game. He also didn’t commit an error all year in 1,195 1/3 innings, just the tenth O’s outfielder to do so in club history and one of just seven MLB outfielders to do it this season (min. 100 G). And he did that while throwing himself all over the place, including on this diving play, one of the Orioles’ best defensive plays all season:
Will he be on the 2024 Orioles?
Yes. Whatever Hays’ inconsistencies at the plate, he is providing a lot of value. He was Baltimore’s 8th-highest WAR player (2.5), delivered above-average offense across the season (114 OPS+) and is also giving his team above-average defense at the newly more spacious Camden Yards. Hays’ starting spot should be secure for now, and as 2023 showed, the O’s can win with a left fielder delivering above-average play on both offense and defense.
2023 player reviews: Ryan McKenna, Jacob Webb, Austin Voth/Keegan Akin, Adam Frazier, Jack Flaherty, Shintaro Fujinami, Aaron Hicks, Bryan Baker, Jorge Mateo, Kyle Gibson, John Means, DL Hall, Jordan Westburg, James McCann, Ryan O’Hearn, Mike Baumann, Ramón Urías, Cole Irvin, Ryan Mountcastle, Danny Coulombe, Tyler Wells, Cionel Pérez
Tomorrow: Yennier Cano