Having made a September cameo for the Orioles in 2017 — when he’d just laid waste to the minor leagues and looked to be preparing himself for a major league job on Opening Day — outfielder Austin Hays has a frame of reference for the three weeks he spent in the majors last month.

But as proud as Hays is of his production — a .309 batting average with a .947 OPS and the fourth-highest wins above replacement (0.9 WAR, according to FanGraphs) of any Orioles position player in just 21 games — what’s more defining is the different tone of the two meetings he had with executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde.


The first was in March, when he was sent to the minors despite playing like he was ticketed for Opening Day. The other was last week in Boston as Hays wrapped up a September that left such a good taste with the Orioles that they scrapped their plan for him to go to the Arizona Fall League.

“It was more positive,” Hays said. “It was a positive meeting instead of a negative one, saying, ‘Improve on this and work on this to get back.’ It was, ‘You’ve done a good job of continuing to work on what we’ve asked.’ It was very positive.”

That spring training meeting he’s comparing it with, of course, likely came as a surprise. Hays, 24, was in his second major league camp this spring, under far different circumstances than his first. After his 2017 major league cameo, when he hit .217 with a .555 OPS after batting .329 with 32 home runs and a .958 OPS in his first full minor league season, he bulked up in the offseason and made some swing changes that didn’t serve him well.

That set off a difficult 2018 season for Hays, who seemed to be a contender to break camp as the Opening Day right fielder all winter but never made it back to the majors as an ankle injury and poor performance limited him.

He was back this year leaner, healthier and with a renewed ability to drive the ball. He was among the best performers Hyde and the Orioles had this spring when he was sent down to Triple-A Norfolk in a surprising series of cuts March 17.

“The first meeting, it was saying you’ve had a pretty good track record in the minor leagues, you’ve put up good numbers, you’ve had a really good spring, but we just feel like — as I had said — I might not have been as prepared as what I thought I was,” Hays said. “That’s how they felt, that I needed some more minor league at-bats and seasoning in center field, too.

“I hadn’t played as many center field games as they would have liked, so going forward and going through this season, playing a lot of games in center field, definitely improving my defense there, and just trying to have better at-bats and not waste as many pitches that are way out of the zone, swinging at things I have no business swinging at. Just trying to fine-tune everything that way. Ultimately, I got this experience and I was prepared for it.”

It wasn’t a clear path to the majors for Hays, though. A thumb injury in minor league camp delayed the start of his season, and he had some progress stalled by a hamstring injury as well. But he finished well and was ticketed for the Arizona Fall League to make up some at-bats when Major League Baseball changed its rule to allow players to be on the major league roster in September and report to Arizona after.

So for the second time in three years, an oddly timed call-up — Hays was plucked from the Double-A Bowie playoff roster in 2017 — put everything he’d been through to the test. Hays was home in Florida moving furniture after a hurricane scare when he got the call, and never let his previous major league experience get too far from his mind.

“It humbled me,” Hays said. “I’d experienced a lot of success in the minors, but just some of the routines that I had and some of my mental approach and how I was playing the game was a bit out of control at times and a bit too aggressive. It kind of showed me I did need some more seasoning and I wasn’t as ready as I thought I was, but going through everything in September [2017], I think helped me going into spring training. And then this last spring training and coming back up here this time, feeling like I’m more prepared because I’ve gone through so many failures. I’m not stopping.”

That led to a September version of Hays that was still aggressive in the field — as evidenced by his myriad diving and leaping catches — but under control at the plate.

Generally, Hays was able to cut down on his swing rate this September, which meant he whiffed less often. According to FanGraphs, he swung at 46.4% of the pitches he faced, as opposed to 53.1% in September 2017; made far more contact (with only 7.3% soft contact, and much less of it on the ground than in 2017); and had a swinging-strike rate of 12%.

In 2017, according to MLB’s Statcast data from BaseballSavant.com, he whiffed at 55.8% of right-handed breaking balls he faced, indicating a chase mentality that developed into a vulnerability. It was 39.4% this September.

“It was nice to have a meeting that went well, and they said, ‘You’ve done what we’ve asked,’ ” Hays said. “The walk-to-strikeout ratio this September [seven-to-13] was really good. Just had a lot of really good at-bats.”


That sets Hays up for more of the same — entering spring training with a job that only he can ensure he wins. But the last few weeks sent him home with a different mindset than last time.

“This time, I experienced a lot more success than I did last time,” Hays said. “I was able to enjoy everything a little bit more, so going home this time, especially with how this season went and how it started with the injury, going home and not thinking I was going to be able to come this year, so I’m just able to enjoy every moment of it now. I’m able to play the last game in Fenway, and will be able to look back and know that I did enjoy it, and I had a lot of fun this September.”

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