Have you heard? The Orioles have the best farm system in baseball. Just ask Baseball America. Or MLB Pipeline. The club is awash in talented, much-hyped youngsters. But as one sensational Orioles prospect after another makes their way to the majors, let’s not forget about the guy on this team who did it first. The OG O’s prospect, if you will.
Austin Hays is the longest tenured homegrown Oriole on the current roster, making his MLB debut in September 2017. His major league arrival capped a meteoric rise for the 2016 draftee, a third-round pick out of Jacksonville University, who jumped from High-A to Double-A to the bigs in one season, skipping Triple-A along the way. Hays, then 22, was named the Orioles’ Minor League Player of the Year. Entering 2018, MLB Pipeline ranked him as the 23rd-best prospect in baseball (six spots ahead of Juan Soto!), predicting he was “on the fast track to becoming an impact, everyday player at the highest level.”
Five years later, that prediction has borne out...somewhat. Hays has indeed settled in as an everyday player, and while your definition of “impact” may vary, he’s been more good than bad since becoming as a lineup mainstay. Hays posted a 2.2 WAR last season, per Baseball Reference, and 3.1 the year before (he fares a bit worse on FanGraphs with a 1.5 and 2.3 WAR, respectively). He’s an Orioles drafted and developed prospect who has turned into a solid contributor, and it’s hard to be upset about that.
Still, Hays remains sort of an enigma. At times it seems as if he’s capable of breaking out into stardom, or something close to it, as his immense talent carries him through extended periods of the season. But his bad habits — especially in the batter’s box, where he tends to become overaggressive and get himself out for long stretches — have limited his overall ceiling.
The 2022 season neatly encapsulated Hays’ Jekyll and Hyde tendencies. For much of the first half, he got All-Star buzz, breaking out to a .287/.345/.489 line through his first 70 games, peaking with a rain-shortened masterpiece June 22 in which he became just the sixth Oriole ever to hit for the cycle. Hays had gone on hot streaks before, but never for quite this long, and it looked as though he might have turned a corner for good.
It didn’t last, and he fell hard. Hays went 3-for-42 to head into the All-Star break and never really recovered, posting a meager .220/.276/.349 performance in 60 games in the second half. His final season stats — .250/.306/.413 with 16 homers and 60 RBIs — ended up competent but uninspiring for a corner outfielder.
- ZiPS: .257/.307/.434, 21 HRs in 588 PAs
- Steamer: .249/.304/.419, 18 HRs in 562 PAs (both from FanGraphs)
- Marcel: .255/.311/.421, 17 HRs in 544 PAs (from Baseball Reference)
All three projection systems forecast a slight uptick in Hays’ OPS, but let’s focus specifically on ZiPS, which lands close to the midpoint between last year’s .719 OPS and his .769 mark the previous year.
The case for the over
If you believe the first half of 2022 was closer to the “real” version of Hays, he could surpass the ZiPS projection by a country mile. Last year his OPS stood at .834 in the last week of June. Had he been merely ordinary in the second half rather than well below-average, he’d have easily cleared the .741 OPS for which he’s now projected. Perhaps there was an unreported reason for his second-half slump, such as a nagging injury that he tried to play through. Hays, for what it’s worth, chalked up his struggles to “mechanical issues” that he has worked hard to fix. “Just continuing to swing at strikes and having good clean mechanics should lead the good first half that I had throughout the course of the season,” he said.
The case for the under
Well...if mechanical issues can be so easily fixed, why didn’t Hays do it last year? It’s great that he’s trying to focus on making good swing decisions, but being a selective hitter just isn’t part of his repertoire and probably never will be. In his two full seasons (2021 and 2022), Hays has posted OBPs of .308 and .306, respectively. His slugging percentage also dropped — down from .461 in 2021 to .413 last year — and he hit six fewer home runs despite 53 more plate appearances. The change in field dimensions at Camden Yards, which made left field a nightmare for right-handed power hitters, cost Hays a few dingers, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
What do you think, Camden Chatters? Can Austin Hays put up a strong year from start to finish, or is he soon to be replaced by an up-and-coming outfield prospect? Vote in the poll and let us know in the comments.
Will Austin Hays go over or under his ZiPS projected OPS of .741?
This poll is closed
Tomorrow: Mychal Givens