When Austin Hays was called up for his MLB debut in 2017 — just over a year after he was drafted — he entered a clubhouse filled with stars.
There was Adam Jones, the four-time All-Star. Mark Trumbo, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, too — all guys Hays looked up to.
Then there was Hays, who had never even been in big league spring training.
“I was a little intimidated,” he said.
Fast forward six years, and Hays is no longer the shy kid sitting alone in the corner, quietly observing how his idols went about their business. He is now the veteran in a clubhouse overflowing with young talent, trying to lead his teammates in the right direction like Jones, Trumbo and Schoop did for him.
Hays is doing it while playing the best baseball of his career, too, hitting .314 as he heads off to start his first career All-Star game on Tuesday night.
“I’ve gone through some different stages of my career,” Hays said. “I’ve been the guy on the bench that’s waiting to come in for a pinch-hit situation. I’ve platooned at times. I’ve been a starter. I’ve had success at the big leagues now getting to go to the All-Star game. Just being around and going through all of those, I can answer questions anyone has in all those different areas no matter if you’re a young guy or an older guy just trying to talk about what we’re trying to do.”
Hays’ game hasn’t changed too much from his early days. In 2017, success came easily for Hays. He flew through the Orioles’ minor league system, making the jump from Double-A to the majors by the time his first professional season was up.
Those were simpler times. He learned from his elders, observing how they did things and replicating as much as he could.
But Hays didn’t have a clear understanding of why he was doing what he was doing yet. Hays would see Trumbo do something in the cage, then try to copy him.
He was just going through the motions and playing based on feel, so, when things got hard in 2018, Hays didn’t know how to get himself back on track. He didn’t play a single major league game that year, as injuries and poor performance kept him in the minor leagues. A string of injuries over the next three seasons also limited his time.
Now, as he’s finally enjoying a fully healthy season — with the exception of the day-to-day hip soreness that limited him last week — he’s seeing his best results since that rookie season.
Mechanically, he’s a pretty similar hitter to who he was in 2017. But, he has a plan when he steps up to the plate. He watches video, dissecting his swing and tracking his plate discipline to determine if he’s swinging at the right pitches in the right counts. He can make real-time adjustments, and help those around him do so too.
“I’ve come a long way with being able to understand and adapt to things quicker than I was then,” Hays said. “I’ve just grown up a lot. I’ve matured a lot.”
The Orioles clubhouse is now filled with players just like Hays was his rookie season. Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser have all also made an impact from the first second they stepped onto a major league field. These four, though, don’t have a room overflowing with veterans to lean on. Aaron Hicks and Cedric Mullins also have the experience, but neither have been there the full season.
Hays is still quiet, but speaks up when he feels the need. He prefers to lead by example, showing these young players the right way to go about things, whether it be mundane details like his daily routine or more complex issues like knowing when to push through a nagging pain to help the team win.
“They went through the lowest of low parts of the season,” Henderson said. “Now that we are winning, they get it. They want to be the leaders and keep the same energy.”