What we might need is a slogan.
Hays Just Plays. Hays for Days. Send Austin to Seattle. Listen, I’m just spitballing here.
What Austin Hays doesn’t need is to bolster his numbers for an All-Star case next month. His performance already backs him up.
In spite of a voting process that is impossible for 9 out of 10 baseball fans to understand, the Orioles are seeing momentum for Adley Rutschman to start as the American League catcher July 11 at T-Mobile Park. It would be a well-deserved honor for the emerging young star leading the team in on-base percentage (.382) whose own maturation encapsulates how the Orioles have grown over the past year. The hulking Felix Bautista, who has mowed down 69 batters for strikeouts in fewer than 35 innings, is also a pretty safe bet to make it.
But you know who is not only pacing the Orioles but the American League in hitting, with a .323 average going into this weekend’s series? Austin Hays, the most modest batting leader you’ll ever meet.
Could he see himself as the AL batting champion at the end of the year? Hays guffawed at the question Friday.
“We’re not even at the All-Star break yet,” he said, swatting away the suggestion. “So we have a long way to go before I can say that.”
The thing is, Austin, we’ve already come a long way.
Through his first 67 games, Hays is a top-10 AL hitter in OPS (.882), slugging (.560), hits (80) and doubles (21). On the team with the third-best record in the AL, he leads Orioles position players in wins above replacement (2.1). He’s one of the AL’s best-fielding left fielders in a vast, defensively treacherous part of Camden Yards, and he doesn’t have an error this year. His speed gives him fielding range to go with extra-base power, and his arm is a deterrent for baserunners who would leg out extra bases themselves.
Here’s the number that’s most concerning: 14th. That’s where Hays wound up in fan voting among AL outfielders in Phase 1 of the MLB process.
Let’s not fool ourselves: In a popularity contest, outfield might be the hardest position to crack through against high-wattage stars such as Aaron Judge, Mike Trout and Randy Arozarena — the three leading vote-getters. But Hays finished behind not one but two Blue Jays: Daulton Varsho and George Springer, neither of whom can touch his numbers playing for the team two spots behind in the AL East.
Forget juicing the numbers. What Hays needs is a publicist: Hey, check out this guy who is having a breakout year for one of baseball’s most exciting teams!
One thing is clear: Hays won’t do this for himself.
“The All-Star break and the All-Star team is just a bonus to having a good year,” he said in front of a huge scrum at his locker. He looked around at the throng of media almost bashfully, as if thinking: Are all these folks here to see me?
Well, yeah, Austin. People are going to want to talk to the guy who has kept the Orioles humming through key injuries to veterans Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle. In his first 17 games of June, he’s hitting .353 with eight doubles and two homers, staying red hot just as the team has needed it the most.
“Well, he’s on the All-Star team for me,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He has had an incredible first half.”
Now that’s the spirit. There’s going to be salesmanship required here.
Perhaps working against Hays is what happened last season, when he started hot but tailed off, batting just .220 after the All-Star break. Maybe folks are simply waiting on the regression.
Here’s the thing: Hays was hurt last year. He sprained his wrist and got hit by a few pitches to boot. The pain caused him to roll his hands over his bat, causing less solid contact and more ground balls. Hays never felt enough pain to sit out, but his decision to play cost him. Even by the time he got healthy, the mechanics were harder to correct.
Don’t just look at the averages. This season, Hays is hitting the ball better and harder. His barrel percentage has more than doubled because he’s corrected his mechanics by keeping his hands back and inside in his swing. His chase rate is down from more than 36% last season to under 30% this season — he’s not pressing nearly as often.
“Just not swinging at edgy stuff early in counts has led me to stick to my plan really no matter what the pitcher’s trying to do,” he said. “I’ve noticed a bigger difference in myself more so than what the pitchers are trying to do.”
Hays may say being an All-Star is just extra, but being an All-Star would resonate deeply for him. He grew up a Marlins fan, cheering Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera in the 2003 World Series. Being an All-Star would etch his name in the annals alongside some of his heroes. You’re not just an All-Star in 2023 — once you make one team in your career, you’re an All-Star forever.
“I’ll be able to tell my kids one day if that was something that happened,” he said. “It would mean a lot to me. We’ll see what happens.”
Hays may be OK with waiting and seeing, but let’s try a more proactive approach. It’s worth getting on the soapbox.
Hays deserves to be an All-Star. Plenty of us can see it already. It’s time the rest of baseball saw it, too.
There are a few weeks left to go. We can work on the slogan. Hays’ case makes itself.