Availability, consistency leading to breakout year for Orioles’ Hays

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Austin Hays appeared to be in the midst of a slump after striking out four times in the Orioles’ 3-0 loss to Washington on Tuesday night.

The 26-year-old outfielder had gone 1-for-15 with eight strikeouts over the first four games of the homestand with his batting average falling to .276, its lowest point since early May. It wouldn’t have been the most surprising — or all that terribly concerning — development for someone who’s battled inconsistency and injuries since earning his first cup of coffee in the majors late in the 2017 season.

But Hays followed that forgettable night by becoming the sixth player in Orioles history to hit for the cycle and adding an outfield assist in the 7-0 win over the Nationals on Wednesday. That he accomplished such a feat in a six-inning game shortened by rain highlights what kind of season he’s having for the improving Orioles. Regarded by many as Baltimore’s best prospect and a top 25 prospect in all of baseball entering 2018, Hays, a third-round pick out of Jacksonville University in 2016, is looking more and more like the player the Orioles envisioned after his tremendous first full season of professional ball.

Set to turn 27 next month and coming off a solid 2021 that included 22 home runs and a .769 on-base plus slugging percentage, Hays entered Thursday leading the Orioles in hits (72), doubles (17), extra-base hits (28), total bases (121), batting average (.287), OPS (.828), runs scored (38), and runs batted in (40). His 10 homers rank third on the club while his slugging percentage (.482) ranks second. According to CBS Sports, he entered Thursday ranked first among qualified American League left fielders in OPS, slugging, homers, RBIs, extra-base hits, and wins above replacement, a profile that should earn Hays strong consideration for next month’s All-Star Game despite not being a household name around the majors.

So, what’s been the difference for a player who’s always had talent and projected confidence?

Hays is drawing a few more walks and striking out a little less while posting a strong .834 OPS against right-handed pitching after posting an underwhelming .683 mark against right-handers last year. He posted an .843 OPS in April and .798 OPS in May before entering Friday with an .846 OPS in June, reflecting how he’s minimized tougher stretches such as the one to start the last homestand.

But the biggest factor has been availability with Hays having played in all but five games this season. At this point last year, the outfielder had already had two stints on the injured list and missed 30 games, continuing a multiyear run of injuries that short-circuited his development. After his major league debut in September of 2017, injuries limited Hays to 75 games in 2018, 108 in 2019, and just 33 in the shortened 60-game season in 2020, which didn’t allow him to make the optimal first impression with general manager Mike Elias and a new regime.

The only multi-game absence for Hays so far in 2022 came in mid-May when he sat out three contests after being spiked on the left hand. In fact, since returning from the IL on June 11, 2021, Hays has appeared in all but seven of the Orioles’ 172 total games played.

In addition to his success at the plate that included a rare second-deck homer at Camden Yards traveling 464 feet earlier this month, Hays has helped the Orioles win more games with his defense with Thursday’s 4-0 win in Chicago being no exception. After throwing out a runner at the plate — the outfielder’s sixth assist of 2022 — to end the fourth inning, Hays made a brilliant diving catch down the right-field line to save a run and stomp out a potential White Sox rally with the Orioles leading 3-0 in the eighth. In addition to being able to play all three outfield spots at a high level, Hays is rapidly earning a reputation for possessing one of the best throwing arms in the league. 

Any player making such an impact at the plate and in the field is a worthy candidate to be invited to Dodger Stadium next month, but the Orioles just hope manager Brandon Hyde will be able to continue writing Hays’ name in the lineup every night. With improved availability often comes more consistency, and Hays is finally showing both after several frustrating years that threatened to derail a promising major league career.

All-Star competition

Beyond Hays and Trey Mancini being the more sentimental favorite to represent the Orioles at the 2022 All-Star game, closer Jorge Lopez could have the best case relative to position.

Upon registering his 12th save in 14 opportunities in Thursday’s win, the 29-year-old right-hander lowered his season earned run average to a minuscule 0.77 in 35 innings. Lopez has struck out 36 batters and walked 13 while continuing to use a four-pitch repertoire that’s played much better in shorter stints than the 25 starts he made last season. His average fastball velocity is 97.8 mph, up from 95.2 mph last year.

The more significant question than Lopez’s All-Star candidacy could be his potential trade value, however. If a contending club is willing to pay a premium for Lopez’s services in the midst of a career year, it’s difficult imagining Elias not pulling the trigger on a trade even as the Orioles continue to show improvement in the win-loss department. But Baltimore shouldn’t be in a rush to make a deal just for the sake of doing it either with Lopez carrying two more years of club control.

Rutschman rising 

Remember some of the angst about Adley Rutschman after he began his major league career with a .143 average, .422 OPS, two extra-base hits, 15 strikeouts, and no homers or RBIs in his first 62 plate appearances?

On the heels of homering, doubling, and driving in three in Thursday’s win over the White Sox, the 24-year-old switch-hitting catcher has batted .326 with eight doubles, two homers, seven RBIs, six strikeouts, and a 1.021 OPS over his last 46 trips to the dish. That he’s already tied for seventh on the Orioles with nine doubles despite not making his debut until May 21 reflects his extra-base hit potential even if the homers haven’t come in bunches yet.

We can probably exhale and get back to enjoying watching the development of the first overall pick of the 2019 draft.