Throughout his five-month conquest of two minor league levels, Orioles breakout prospect Austin Hays found that the only way to keep a good feeling going was to show up at the ballpark each day and build on it.
Fortunately for him, there's nothing he'd rather do. And on Tuesday, that ballpark turned out to be Camden Yards, as the Orioles finally gave in to their urge to call up one of the hottest hitters in all the minors.
Hays, a third-round draft pick from last year who skipped the Low-A South Atlantic League and posted two dominant half-seasons with High-A Frederick and then Double-A Bowie, has been rewarded for being one of the most impressive players to pass through the Orioles' system in years with a chance to help the major league team chase another playoff spot.
His regular playing time at each school set him on quite a baseball development path, one that executive vice president of baseball operations Dan credits the Orioles scouting staff for sniffing out early.
"I'm sure it's going to hit me here sooner or later, just realizing it's my first full season and I've played 120 games now and I couldn't have imagined being in a better spot than where I am right now," Hays said last week in Bowie, when his focus was still on making the Eastern League playoffs, not the American League postseason. "It's worked out perfectly."
And that was before the Orioles put him in a position to be the first member of the 2016 draft class to make the majors. It's a just reward for a year during which he batted .329/.365/.593 with 32 home runs and 32 doubles between Frederick and Bowie, the culmination of years of steady development for the former Jacksonville Dolphin, who arrived at the Atlantic Sun school after a year at Seminole State, a junior college.
"He had the skill set, he had the tools — the thing that separated Austin was he never took a day off," Tim Montez, the former coach at Jacksonville, said. "The most impressive thing I saw, the very first time he was with me in our first official practice, I just watched him take fly balls off the bat in during BP. He never took a fly ball off during batting practice.
"It was amazing. He was relentless at it, working on his jumps, working on his angles. And for two years, he was like that. It didn't surprise me at all. When we told him he needed to shorten up his swing a little bit, he worked on it. But he was as close to a five-tool player that I've been around, and I've been real fortunate to have been around some pretty good players over my coaching career."
Hays brought that to the Orioles after he was drafted last summer. He missed nearly a month with a wrist problem last year at Short-A Aberdeen, but was still out power-shagging during batting practice with a wrist brace on, eliciting equal parts bewilderment and awe from those around him.
That same habit that made him a capable fielder at all three spots has carried over to the plate in what's been a standout season. He started the season hot and stayed that way, using the schedule allotted to a professional baseball player to build on the success that became a norm for him.
"I would say for sure, the experience just comes into play," Hays said. "You get more at-bats, and you can kind of work on things every single day. If you feel something that is giving you problems, it's easier to work yourself out of it when you're playing every single day. That's what I've loved about pro ball so far. If something doesn't feel right, a week later, you've fixed it and made it a strength of yourself."
For Baysox manager Gary Kendall, there's a precedent for the kind of season Hays had tearing through Bowie, though there's the unique aspect of him starting his first full season in the Carolina League and ending it in the majors. He compared it to the season Trey Mancini had in 2015, a year before he eventual big league call-up and two seasons before he broke out as one of the majors’ top rookies. Duquette looks at Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi, who similarly began his first full season in High-A and ended it in the majors.
"He doesn't let one part of his game slack," Kendall said. "A lot of guys can hit and they're not too worried about their defense, but he takes a lot of pride in every tool that he has. I think that's one of the reasons why he's been able to be successful, and he's got talent. He's a talented guy. He's strong. He's physical. He's got good foot speed. ... I think that's why he gets good results—because he puts everything he has into every part of the game."
That Hays was added after over a week of both manager Buck Showalter and Duquette saying they didn't have room on the 40-man roster and they wanted the players at Double-A Bowie to see out their playoff run, which begins Wednesday, is odd. But without much right-handed-hitting outfield depth to draw from, his addition was always inevitable.
"You listen to the other clubs talk about him, and hear our scouts and player development people, he has such a professional approach," Duquette said. "He can hit. He can run. He can throw. He's just a great baseball player.
Kendall believes Hays' defense is such that he can make up for any offensive deficiencies, and vice versa. No one who has overseen his fast ascent believes a major league debut in a pennant race will be too much for him to handle, though.
"Some guys ... they can get so consumed by the atmosphere that they aren't freed up to play, but Austin, he's a loosey-goosey," Montez said. "Always has a smile on his face. He's going to treat it like any other game even though it's not, and we all know that. He's going to have fun, no matter what.”
To make room for Hays on the 40-man roster, the Orioles designated left-hander Jayson Aquino for assignment.