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Austin Hays is flying under the radar—even on his own team

He’s having his best offensive season yet, helped by an increased launch angle and a better approach against breaking balls.

Toronto Blue Jays v. Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Early in Tuesday’s 11-3 win, Brandon Hyde was put on the broadcast and asked to say nice things about his right fielder, Austin Hays. “Can we get him some All-Star Votes?” quipped the O’s manager.

It’s not easy. Austin Hays is having an All-Star worthy season, but he’s been grossly overlooked—even by his team’s own fans. Lockdown relievers Yennier Cano and Félix Bautista get the cool nicknames and the walk-up routines. Youngsters Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson get the national attention. Even Cedric Mullins commands more interest at the outfield position.

I suspect Austin Hays is OK with it, though. He’s one of the few Orioles left from the old Duquette regime who’ve made the jump from the lean years to, finally, a competitive Orioles team. (The only others, counting those on the 40-man, are Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander, Ryan McKenna, Keegan Akin, Mychal Givens, Bruce Zimmermann, DL Hall, Mike Baumann and Grayson Rodriguez.) Even more importantly, it’s the first time in Hays’ career that he’s really putting it all together.

On an Orioles team with the second-best record in baseball and shining bright with young stars, Hays is still managing to be the fifth-most valuable Oriole (measured in WAR) behind only Cano, Mullins (out on the 10-day IL), Tyler Wells and Adley Rutschman. Good company.

A tour of the stats suggests two things about Hays’s 2023 season so far: he’s a top-tier outfielder with the bat, and his defense is subpar. Let’s discuss each in turn.

At this point in the season, Hays finds himself second in the AL in batting average (.303) behind only Bo Bichette. His quality of contact is among the better in the game: he ranks in the top 25% of hitters in slugging, OPS, hits, doubles, barrel percentage, exit velocity, and expected slugging. He’s just a well-rounded hitter at this point.

However he might compare to other hitters, these totals are a big improvement for Hays himself. He’s putting up career bests in pretty much all the important categories: average exit velocity, barrel percentage, hard hit percentage, and so on. And he’s at career lows in chase percentage.

Hays’ offensive changes in 2023 can be summed up in three statistics: one, a 12-degree launch angle. A career high for the outfielder, an increased launch angle has helped Hays cut down on ground balls and increase his flyball percentage this season. This is well-timed: with the shift now banned, more of his batted balls are turning into hits, as his average shows.

Two, a 91.4-mph exit velocity, Hays’ highest ever. If you break this down by type of pitch, you get a chart that looks like the one below. Hays has always been a strong fastball hitter, but he struggled against breaking balls until this year.

Credit: BaseballSavant

Third and finally, Hays’ chase percentage: 29.4%, also a career low. What’s driving this, again, seems to be improvement against breaking balls. In 2022, he chased 38% of these pitches outside the zone. In 2023, that rate is 25%. Evidently, he’s identifying the strike-to-ball pitch better and making better swing decisions.

By contrast, two things are hurting Hays’ profile right now: one, the glare given off by the O’s young stars and two, Statcast’s harsh assessment of his defense. None of the major sources rank him a plus defender, and based solely on outs above average and outfielder jump, BaseballSavant puts him somewhere in the 16-19th percentile of outfielders. That’s bad.

But it seems unfair, though. Here’s a couple of reasons why Hays’ defense may be undervalued by observed metrics.

One, what these metrics seem to hate are Hays’ jump on the ball and reaction time (not so much the route he takes to get there). Is this a chronic condition? For what it’s worth, Hays’ scores were worse in 2022—so this isn’t a story of age and declining skills. It’s still early in this season.

Second, Camden Yards now has one of, if not the largest left field in the game, making his level of difficulty something more analogous to a centerfielder. Upon examination, Hays’ poor outs above average score reflects a few balls that have dropped in front of him for hits and one or two behind him, but it’s important to make sure these are counting for the amount of ground he has to cover.

Third, Hays is good at all the other stuff that outfielders are supposed to do. He’s fourth in assists, second in putouts and has a 1.000% fielding percentage. He’s also in the 66th percentile in foot speed and 89th in arm strength. In 2021, Hays ranked first out of all leftfielders in range factor, second in 2022, and this year, he’s third. Not exactly a slouch.

A great arm. Good speed. Good hands. Good hitting. Convinced yet? Maybe Austin Hays will soon get the recognition he deserves.