This past year was Austin Hays’ third full season in the majors. In late 2017, he was called upon by Baltimore to make his major league debut after carving up opposing pitchers in High-A Frederick (RIP) and Double-A Bowie. Over the following two seasons, Hays would ride the shuttle bus across five levels of professional baseball before ultimately earning a full-time roster spot with the Orioles coming out of 2020 spring training/summer camp.
When on top of his game, Austin Hays is electric. He is a tremendous athlete and possesses all the physical tools of a great ballplayer. Unfortunately, the second half of the 2022 MLB season for him was anything but electric.
2022 was really a tale of two seasons for Austin. He came out of the gates performing as his typical self slashing .270/.325/.454 with an OPS of .779 alongside of 12 homers over the first 85 games of the season. However, as soon as July came around, he fell off tremendously. Hays would go on to slash .220/.276/.349 along with a .626 OPS and just 4 home runs over his remaining 60 games played. Those slash lines would combine to produce a final line of .250/.306/.413 with a .719 OPS, in addition to a .314 wOBA and wRC+ of 105.
Throughout the season, Hays was also less than stellar on the defensive side. Below you will find a table consisting of last year’s fielding statistics obtained from Fangraphs that are broken down into each individual outfield position.
Hays played a majority of his games in the corners while also making a few appearances in center. He was primarily tasked with patrolling the slopes and high cliffs of Mt. Walltimore.
You may be wondering why his DRS and OAA values differ from one another despite the fact that both statistics measure how good a player is on defense. The short answer is that Hays has one hell of a throwing arm. According to Baseball Savant, he was ranked in the 92nd percentile of all qualified outfielders in terms of arm strength.
Within its calculation, DRS takes into account Outfield Arms Runs Saved (rARM) which is another defensive statistic that solely evaluates a fielder’s throwing arm. OAA on the other hand only utilizes catch probability to arrive at its final mark.
Furthermore, Austin was actually pretty solid on the basepaths when not attempting to steal an extra 90 feet. He posted an above average UBR value of 2.3. This statistic measures the overall contribution a player makes to his team via baserunning without taking into account stolen bases. In order to examine the flip side of the coin and only take into account base stealing, we can use wSB in which Hays produced a below average mark of -1.7. Combine both of those measurements into a more all-encompassing baserunning stat such as BsR and we arrive at a value of 0.6 which is just above the league average of 0.
Now, what exactly caused such a decline? There are several culprits but let’s start off by examining his approach at the plate. Hays can be classified more so as a power hitter as evidenced by a career average SLG of .434 as well as an ISO of .177. His max exit velocity from this past season of 109 mph also supports the notion of possessing raw power. However, actually being able to translate that to game power is where Austin sometimes falls short. In 2022 he only hit 16 home runs which was down from the previous year’s total of 22. This can also be attributed to the new left field dimensions at Camden Yards which will be further examined later in the article.
As you can see below, he effectively utilizes all areas of the field while simultaneously hitting for power primarily to his pull-side.
When examining some of Hays’ plate discipline metrics, nothing appears to jump out. He is nearly right in line with the league average for all qualified hitters. The only notable difference is that Austin walks less than your typical batter.
However, if we break it down further by zone, a different story begins to reveal itself. Hays is chasing pitches that are outside of the zone at a rate that is approximately 7% more than league average (11th percentile of all qualified hitters). On those pitches, he is also making contact at a rate that is lower than the league average.
When he does end up making contact, the ball doesn’t often travel far. Rarely is he able to get a ball in the sweet spot and drive it as evidenced by ranking in the 26th and 35th percentiles for both Hard Hit % (balls hit over 95 mph) and Barrel %. Based on the data below, Hays also finds himself in below average exit velocity territory.
Breaking it down even further by individual pitch type, Austin was subpar against fastballs compared to the year prior. He batted .246 with a .367 SLG alongside a .301 wOBA in contrast to 2021 marks of .289, a SLG of .505, and a wOBA of .361 against the heater.
However, Hays’ main kryptonite appears to be breaking pitches that are both down and away. In the first chart below, the red squares correspond with the pitch locations where he swings and misses most often. By viewing the second chart that plots his slugging percentage, we can further deduce that he is also doing the least amount of damage against those same pitches.
Going back to the bar charts we looked at earlier, his contact rate on all pitches that were inside the strike zone was 4% better than the league average. This is encouraging as we can deduce that Hays’ overall Whiff % can primarily be attributed to chasing pitches outside of the zone rather than missing on pitches inside the zone.
In terms of year-to-year changes, there are a few things that stick out. Hays produced a pop-up rate of 10.4% in 2022 which ranked 11th among all qualified hitters in MLB and a significant jump from his 2021 total of 7.3%. Conversely, his ground ball, fly ball, and line drive percentages all remained relatively consistent. Additionally, Austin’s swing % on the first pitch increased by nearly 11% to a mark of 35.7%.
Another interesting tidbit is that Hays outperformed his expected statistics for the season.
Expected stats like xwOBA are very useful due to the fact that they are more indicative of a player’s individual skillset. This is achieved by not accounting for things that a hitter does not control such as the opposing defense.
Simply put, xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA all calculate the probability that a ball off the bat becomes a hit solely based on its exit velocity and launch angle. The traditional concepts remain as xSLG sill assigns a weighted value to each hit type and xwOBA also still assigns a weighted value to each method associated with getting on base. On the other hand, xwOBAcon differs slightly from xwOBA by removing any information regarding strikeouts/walks and focusing solely on quality of contact.
Hays’ expected numbers from this past season indicate that he SHOULD have been performing even worse than he actually did based on his batted ball metrics. The main factors that can cause such a discrepancy between actual vs. expected are defensive positioning, park factors, and just plain luck. We can say with certainty that the new dimensions of OPACY would not have worked in favor of the 27-year-old outfielder (more on this later). He ultimately benefitted from playing with a few four-leaf clovers in his back pocket as well as the opposition’s defensive positioning or lack thereof. This is supported by the fact that opposing teams implemented a shift against him at a below average rate for RHH’s (18.1% vs. 19.6%).
Without further ado, here’s a few things that I believe were catalysts in Hays’ 2022 performance.
1. Performance against breaking pitches.
We previously discussed how Austin’s biggest issue appeared to be on breaking pitches that were down and out of the zone. We can pinpoint exactly when this started to take effect by referring to the following graphs.
As you can see, his average exit velocity against breaking pitches tanked right around July/August. This coincides with a decrease in offensive production around the same time as the two have previously been proven to be directly correlated.
It is very plausible that at some point, Hays developed some bad habits within his swing mechanics that negatively impacted his performance against this particular pitch type (will touch on this more in the next section). Another possibility is that something with his mentality was affecting either his confidence or concentration at the plate. However, this would be increasingly difficult to confirm or deny as this aspect cannot currently be quantified.
In my opinion, based on everything that has been discussed up to this point, the most likely scenario is poor pitch recognition. This would make Hays especially vulnerable against breakers, in turn explaining his subpar performance. This notion is supported by the high chase rate. This also results in generating weaker contact which typically leads to the higher pop-up rate that Austin is exhibiting.
2. Swing Mechanics
Throughout the season, Hays manifested some inconsistencies with his swing mechanics. The side-by-side comparison below features separate instances in which he received a four-seam fastball on the outer half of the plate. The video on the left shows Austin being able to drive the pitch to the opposite field for a double. This also happened to occur during the month of May which was his most productive month of the year in terms of providing offense. On the contrary, Hays’ strikeout against the Cubs was amidst a 0 for 17 skid during a treacherous month of August.
One thing that sticks out to me is the back shoulder. Notice how in the leftmost clip, Hays drops his back shoulder and effectively keeps it there thus creating a more compact and efficient swing path which further allows him to drive through the ball. On the right, we can observe that Austin almost appears to lift his back shoulder back up in an effort to compensate for the pitch being slightly higher in the strike zone. This simply results in the upper half of his body being out of sync with the lower half and causes him to appear to be unbalanced at the conclusion of the swing.
Additionally, in the clip against the Red Sox, Hays plants his front foot slightly earlier in this swing and is also standing farther away from the plate.
Pete Rose did a segment on Fox Sports a few years ago that lives rent free in my head. He was quoted saying "Never admit you’re in a slump. When they’re in a lull, I tell them to do one of six things. Closer to the plate, further away from the plate, up in the box, back in the box, choke up on the bat more, choke down on the bat more. Never change your swing. Your swing is what got you into the big leagues."
Personally, I play a lot of golf. When I’m struggling, it often was simply due to how I was gripping the club or maybe at some point I had started to set up farther away from the ball than usual. Whatever opinion you may have of Mr. Rose, there is simply no denying that he is one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game of baseball.
Bringing it back to Hays, I believe it would work wonders if he were able to focus less on his actual swing but instead refine his current approach at the plate while simultaneously developing proper technique in terms of timing, posture, rhythm, etc. It would also be beneficial to experiment with various adjustments regarding his stance and potentially his grip as well. Obviously the most critical step would be to successfully replicate any changes made on a consistent basis. Accomplishing this would also surely increase his average exit velocity as well as quality of contact.
3. Park Dimensions
Like with countless other hitters, the addition of Mt. Walltimore is certainly not doing Hays any favors. As you can see below, I’ve overlayed his hitting data from the 2022 MLB season onto the previous dimensions of OPACY. This would have granted him approximately 5–7 more dingers throughout the year.
Focusing solely on the new dimensions, had Hays played every game of this past season with Mt. Walltimore looming on the left field horizon, his home run total would have been just 11 (down from 16). This would be the lowest out of every stadium in all major league baseball. Coming in 2nd place with 13 homers is a four-way tie between Kauffman Stadium, Busch Stadium, Progressive Field, and LoanDepot Park.
As previously mentioned, it bodes well that Austin is a spray hitter who can utilize all areas of the field. However, we really can’t expect to get much production from the long ball in the near future.
Overall, Austin Hays had a decent season that was mostly bogged down by treacherous performances in the months of July, August, and September. He showed some flashes of potential which ultimately earned him a salary of $3.2 million through his first round of arbitration.
We can say with confidence that Hays will be the Orioles starting left fielder come Opening Day. It would not be completely outside the realm of possibility that he ends up sharing some playing time in the corner outfield spots with the likes of Kyle Stowers, Anthony Santander, and Ryan McKenna.
Austin appears to have regained some of his offensive prowess after posting an OPS of 1.297! in eight spring training games so far. However, with top outfield prospects such as Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad knocking on the door to the bigs with Hudson Haskin, Dylan Beavers, and Jud Fabian closely following suite, Hays will need to further prove he can consistently be a valuable contributor in order to remain in Charm City.