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Orioles reset: With health and hard hits, Austin Hays showing what he’s capable of

To Austin Hays, the aspects of his game that prompted the Orioles to send him to the minors to open the 2019 season are the same ones that have allowed him to get off to a strong start four years later.

There’s the improvement in plate discipline, buying into the organization’s swing decision-focused approach. An aggressive hitter, he’s worked to hone that mindset into only pitches he can do damage on. But the most significant trait that is fueling an impressive two months, Hays said, is health.

After garnering a reputation as injury-prone early in his career, Hays is approaching two years since his last injured list stint, playing through severe cuts, bruises and muscles tears in that time.

“I would rather go out and perform maybe at a lower level than what I feel like I can if I’m capable of playing,” Hays said. “I still feel like I can give the team a really good chance to win, even if I’m not at 100%.

“I take a tremendous pride in games played. That’s probably the thing that I care about the most, above any other stat. I just want to be in the lineup every single day and find a way to impact the game. … If I have the opportunity to be out there on the field, no matter what it is, I’m gonna fight for it to go out there.”

Hays has appeared in all but five of the Orioles’ first 53 games, a bruised right middle finger the reason for his absences. Despite Hays’ fascination with that number, his others show the impact he has. After three hits Sunday — a go-ahead single in the first inning, a triple that would have been a home run in every other major league park in the third and a game-winning single in the eighth — the 27-year-old is hitting .322, the American League’s third-highest average, with an .887 OPS.

Entering Sunday, Hays’ 21 outfield assists since 2021 were tied for baseball’s fourth most in that span, and of the 70 outfielders who played at least 1,500 defensive innings over those three seasons, he was one of two without a fielding error. He has spent the past two seasons playing his home games in the majors’ most spacious left field, with manager Brandon Hyde describing Hays’ defensive abilities as “special.”

Strains in each hamstring cost Hays a couple of weeks each over the first two months of 2021, but since coming off the IL, he has played through and around a torn muscle in his core, a cut on the back of his left hand that required stitches after he was stepped on during a slide, a right wrist injury stemming from a diving catch and the bruised finger that was the result of a pitch directly to it on a bunt attempt.

“He’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever been around,” Hyde said. “His pain tolerance is incredible.”

But, as Hays himself acknowledged, playing through the pain has had its downsides. The diving catch that hurt his wrist last season came one day after he hit for the cycle against the Washington Nationals; after that June 22 feat, he was hitting .287/.347/.482, but he slashed .219/.270/.354 from that point on.

“I played through some nagging stuff, and I created some bad habits, and my swing wasn’t where it needed to be,” Hays said. “When you know mechanically you’re not sound, you’re just trying to battle up there at the box, and if you start pressing at all, you start to expand the zone, and then you’re not in a good place.”

Still, he would rather play less than whole than not at all. After becoming the first member of baseball’s 2016 draft class to reach the majors when he made his debut in September 2017, Hays went nearly two years without appearing for the Orioles. He spent much of 2018 managing a left ankle injury that required offseason surgery, but he arrived at Baltimore’s camp in 2019 believing a spot back in the majors was within reach. He was dejected when the Orioles, despite his strong spring performance, sent him to minor league camp, only to tear a ligament in his left thumb days later.

The organization initially planned to send him to the Arizona Fall League to make up for lost playing time, with a hamstring issue also limiting him that season, but a rule change to eligibility prompted the Orioles to give Hays a September call-up. He capitalized on it, reestablishing himself as part of Baltimore’s future.

“It was really big for me mentally to just kind of see where that year started, where I thought it was gonna go and how opposite it actually went for four or five months, to just get back there and then have the success that I did,” Hays said. “It was really, really something that I needed mentally at that time.”

Hays briefly played with a broken rib before going on the IL in 2020′s shortened season. He was back on three games into 2021 and spent 28 games on the IL between two stints, but since being activated June 11 of that year, he’s been on Baltimore’s active roster for every game.

He finished with 131 games played that year, then reached 145 in 2022. He sees 150 as the baseline goal this year, though he wants to pair that quantity with quality.

“I feel like the one piece that I just still have to prove is that I can play at a high level for a whole year,” Hays said. “I’ve done it in stints, I’ve done it for a half, I’ve done it for a month here and there. But just to be consistent from start to finish with a healthy season, that’s the goal this year and what I’m working towards.”

Before games, Hays sharpens his swing decisions through mixed batting practice sessions. Treating a 25-pound medicine ball as the heart of the strike zone, he determines whether he’s hunting fastballs or breaking balls, then swings only at those pitch types when they arrive in the “med-ball zone.”

It’s proved especially fruitful in how he’s attacked fastballs this season. Including his two hits off them Sunday, Hays is hitting .479 off four-seamers, the highest in the majors among players who have had at least 50 plate appearances end on that pitch, while slugging .854, second in the majors and more than double his figure last season, according to Baseball Savant. After his cycle, Hays was hitting .292 and slugging .338 off four-seamers; much of his damage last season came off changeups and sliders, pitches he’s still having success with this year.

Hays’ expected average, expected slugging percentage and average exit velocity — Statcast metrics based on quality of contact — all entered Sunday in the top quarter of qualified hitters. His barrel rate, the percentage of time a hitter achieves the most desirable form of contact, has climbed by 8.2%, the same amount his chase percentage has dropped from last season, suggesting he is achieving his goal of waiting for his pitch and doing damage when he gets it.

Overall, Hays recognizes he’s statistically at a relatively similar place to where he was at this time last year; he ended the Orioles’ 53rd game in 2022 hitting .302, and his average wasn’t that high again the rest of the year. He believes he’s better poised to carry his success through the full season, saying he has “a better understanding of why I’m getting the results I’m getting.”

“The numbers will be there at the end of the year if I can be on the field for a high number of games and work on the right things every day and have a good solid plan and approach when I go out onto the field to have consistent at-bats where I’m swinging at strikes and hitting the ball hard,” Hays said. “The numbers will be there at the end of the year. I believe that.”

What’s to come?

After completing a grueling 22-game slate completely against teams with winning records in which 12 of the games were decided by two or fewer runs, the Orioles get a brief reprieve … by facing the reigning AL Central champions. The 23-29 Cleveland Guardians, who are only 3 1/2 games back in baseball’s most mediocre division, come to Camden Yards for three games to close May.

After Thursday’s day off, the Orioles go on an interleague road trip, facing the San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Brewers, who both would be National League playoff teams had the regular season ended Sunday.

What was good?

An inherited runner Dean Kremer left on in Saturday’s seventh inning came around to hurt his final line, but even with it scoring, the right-hander will leave May with an ERA more than two runs lower than he entered this month with. After posting a 6.67 ERA in six April starts — allowing at least four runs in five of them — Kremer had a 2.45 mark in five May outings. Notably, after giving up seven home runs in 29 2/3 April innings, he allowed only two in 29 1/3 innings in May.

What wasn’t?

The up-and-down nature of top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez’s first major league stint finally dipped low enough that the organization decided to demote him back to Triple-A. The 23-year-old right-hander alternated disastrous and effective starts throughout May, culminating in Friday’s stinker in which he allowed eight earned runs and three home runs in 3 1/3 innings.

Hyde noted the importance of Rodriguez improving his fastball command; his results seemed to largely depend on his ability to get outs with his four-seamer. In Rodriguez’s five good starts, those in which he allowed six runs combined, he surrendered a .222 average and .361 slugging percentage on the pitch. The other five, which featured 31 earned runs over 19 2/3 innings, saw opponents hit .525 and slug 1.075 on Rodriguez’s four-seam fastball.

On the farm

After trading relievers Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser to the Miami Marlins last spring, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias described the 67th overall pick in the 2022 draft as the most “salient” part of Baltimore’s return. Outfielder Jud Fabian, taken with that selection three months later, has helped to back that up. This week with High-A Aberdeen, the 22-year-old recorded seven hits, five of them doubles, in 20 at-bats while drawing four walks against three strikeouts. Baltimore’s preseason No. 14 prospect according to Baseball America, Fabian is hitting .265 with a .796 OPS for the season.

Guardians at Orioles

Monday, 1:05 p.m.

TV: MASN, MLB Network (out of market only)

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Guardians at Orioles

Tuesday, 7:05 p.m.

TV: MASN

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

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Source: Berkshire mont

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