As last season progressed, a nagging wrist injury kept Austin Hays from completing the intricate hitting routine he maintained during the first half of the campaign.

Those hitting drills, on top of the video he devoured of his opponents’ pitches and his own mechanics, helped propel the Orioles outfielder to new heights. Hays entered the All-Star break hitting .270, but even that was down about 20 percentage points from a month earlier.

As he rested his wrist before games — finding himself outside the batting cage and away from his hitting drills — the slow decline toward the mean sped up and spiraled. Suddenly, the mistake pitches that he punished in the middle part of the strike zone wound up as foul balls. He’d fall into more two-strike counts and face nastier offerings from pitchers. As a result, he pressed more, trying to re-create what he did in the first half of 2022.

“That led to me getting away from the correct mechanics,” Hays said.

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By the end of the season, Hays’ average had dipped to .250. After the All-Star break, he hit just .220.

Off to an even better start this season, Hays recognizes the similarities and differences. His mechanics have returned to their best. He’s in the cage each day, going through the drills. The results are showing up on the field to the tune of a team-high .311 batting average.

That’s all great.

But Hays also remembers how things began to fall away last year. There’s no controlling an injury — those can crop up at any time. But there are things Hays can control, and each day he’s healthy he makes sure to lock in on those.

“We talk a lot about ‘trust the process,’” Hays said. “What does that mean? For me, it’s controlling the zone and swinging at pitches with the correct mechanics. If I’m doing those two things, I should be hitting the ball hard. And, when I hit it hard, I should be hitting it on the line. That should lead to consistent success throughout the course of the season, and that’s where my mind is every day.”

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In that respect, Hays is compiling a first half of 2023 that appears more sustainable than the first half of 2022. The risk of an injury is always there, but what has made Hays so dominant through the first two months is that his chase rate is lower than it has ever been.

The selectiveness at the plate — and the willingness to swing early in the count when the opportunity arises — has pushed Hays into the upper echelon of hitters. Compared to last season, Hays has decreased his out-of-zone swing percentage by 7.8%, which is tied with teammate Cedric Mullins for the seventh-best year-to-year change in Major League Baseball.

With that improved discipline comes a hard-hit percentage that has gone up 7.5% from 2022 to 2023 and a barrel rate that has jumped 8.1% — the fifth-best year-to-year rise in the majors.

Those metrics reinforce what Hays is doing and are a sign that his hot start could last. At the least, Hays learned from the decline he experienced last year. Even if a nagging injury arrives, he is determined to use that experience to maintain his current form.

“This year, I need to do a better job of that no matter what, no matter how my body’s feeling,” Hays said. “Just continue to hammer away at those things I know are going to lead to success and results.”

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The plate discipline Hays has found comes mostly from the video he studies. When he jumps on a mistake left over the plate, however, his mechanics are key. Hays said his focus is to hit the ball with a launch angle from 5 to 30 degrees — the former to bounce near an infielder’s ankles and the latter to leave the park.

To do so, the lower half of his body needs to remain balanced and avoid the tendency to drift ahead of his bat head. And, in his batting practice drills, Hays works to ensure his bat and shoulders are on a level plane.

“If it’s a higher pitch, then your shoulders and barrel are going to be flatter,” Hays said. “The lower the ball is in the zone, the more you’re going to want to tilt” — meaning his back shoulder will droop along with his bat head.

The level plane allows Hays to hit more baseballs with the barrel of his bat. If he’s late, he can still knock a pitch on a line to right field. If he’s early, he avoids a tendency to open his hips and drive the ball into the dirt or pop it up.

Those mechanics remind Hays of his strong start to the 2022 season. So does his health, barring a finger contusion that forced him to wear a batting glove for a week or two while it healed. This time, though, Hays sees his success as more sustainable.

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Health will play a huge role. But so will his mechanics and his batter’s eye guiding him to swing at pitches that are in the zone early in the count to dole out damage. He’s never been better in that regard, and the proof is in each trip to the plate.

“If you’re doing those two things,” Hays said, “your lows aren’t going to dip quite so much, you know? You’re going to be more consistent.”