Orioles prospect Austin Hays was out two months with a lingering ankle injury that took away his ability to play the game he loves, yet that time in the dugout might have gotten him back to being a player that game constantly rewarded.
Hays, 23, stayed with Double-A Bowie the whole time he was out, watching what was working for the players who were doing well and seeing what was lacking for those who weren’t.
As a result, he returned to the Baysox lineup this week with a clear understanding of what would help him regain his top prospect form, one that made him one of the minors’ brightest stars and earned him the distinction of being the first 2016 draftee to reach the majors last season.
“You can always find some light in the darkness,” Hays said. “It kind of gave me a chance to create a plan for what I wanted to do when I got back, and what I wanted to accomplish. Mentally speaking, I think it was a really good thing, and I used the time that I had off in a good way to just mentally reset and just focus on the right things.”
After that breakout 2017 season in which Hays rose from High-A Frederick to Baltimore and shot up to No. 21 in Baseball America’s top prospects list this past winter, there was a sense around the game that, be it injuries or a change in approach, something was different about the young outfielder this year.
He was meant to compete for the Orioles’ right field job in spring training before shoulder soreness kept him out for two weeks, and he never really got going at Bowie before the ankle injury became too much to play through. Hays was batting .224/.259/.374 with six home runs May 24. While the organization attributed much of that to injury, many scouts who had seen him thrive last year with an all-fields approach saw a hitter who was too pull-conscious and had changed too much based on his reality check in September with Baltimore.
Hays pushed back at that notion earlier during his disabled list stint, but said with the perspective of two months off that there was something fundamentally different at the plate.
“I had a lot of stuff going on mechanically that I didn’t have going on last year,” Hays said. “I was missing a lot of good fastballs to hit that I didn’t miss last year, and it was causing me not to be able to see the breaking ball, so I was chasing a lot of stuff out of the zone that I didn’t chase last year. Just simplifying things and spreading out, just allowing myself to see the ball and let my hands work and just trust myself. Those are pretty much the biggest thing.”
He showed Wednesday, in just his second game back with Bowie, that the byproduct of all that was working. Hays turned on an inside fastball for a single in his second at-bat, and when he got one on the outer half in the fifth inning, he waited on it and sent a double into the right-field corner. He went the other way for his first single Tuesday and also flied out to deep right field twice on pitches on the outside half in his final two at-bats Wednesday.
“It’s just being able to trust myself and allow the ball to get deep enough to see if it’s a ball or a strike, and what kind of pitch it was,” Hays said. “Earlier in the year, it just seemed like I was swinging at balls out of the hand before I even realized if they were in the zone, or what kind of pitch it was. I was guessing at the plate, even though I didn’t realize it. That’s what my swings were showing. Just to be back now, I took a step back and I’m enjoying the game. I missed so much time, it’s fun being out there and lacing up the cleats again. I’m just taking at-bats and trying to see the ball again.”
Hays has barely four weeks left to do that with Bowie, though it’s unlikely his season will be over then. A good month could put him in line for a September call-up to give him another crack with the Orioles, while there’s also the chance he could be sent to the Arizona Fall League to make up some of his lost at-bats.
Until any of that is settled, Hays has a good idea of what will be required for him to leave Bowie after Labor Day with a sense of accomplishment.
“A good August would be exactly what I did these last two games since I’ve been back,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve stayed in the zone, I’ve been on time with the fastball and when I’ve gotten to two strikes, I haven’t chased anything out of the zone or swung and missed. For me, just continue to have competitive at-bats and continue to play defense like I have the last two games. If I can keep doing what I’ve done since I’ve been back, I’ll be very happy with the rest of this month.”