Orioles manager Brandon Hyde hasn’t liberally compared his young players to some of the top talents around the league, perhaps knowing the expectations those comparisons might create.
When right-hander Tom Eshelman came up to the majors two months ago, the natural comparison for him was with fellow soft-tossing command artist Kyle Hendricks, who was a Cy Young Award finalist with Hyde for the Chicago Cubs. Eshelman, of course, was outrighted off the Orioles’ roster this month.
But when Hyde looked on the field in Wednesday’s 7-3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, with newcomer Austin Hays patrolling center field and doing it all in a three-hit night, he couldn’t help but think of an opposing player’s career arc as a lofty goal that Hays could meet.
“I was thinking during the game, I saw A.J. Pollock young, and he’s got a little A.J. Pollock in there for me,” Hyde said. “A guy that can play center field, that can really throw, that’s athletic and can go get it in the gap, but also a tough out and a guy that can leave the ballpark on you. For me, that’s a pretty good comp when I was watching both of those guys tonight. I was thinking back on what A.J. looked like a handful of years ago.”
Pollock, a longtime Arizona Diamondback who signed as a free agent with the Dodgers this year, was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 2015 who, across an unlucky career in terms of injuries, has hit .279/.336/.468 while rating well defensively in center field until he reached his 30s.
Hays, the Orioles’ 2016 third-round draft pick who shot to the majors after batting .329 with a .958 OPS and 32 home runs in the minors in 2017, became their top prospect after his September call-up that year. But he didn’t make it back to the majors until last weekend.
Hays didn’t have a hit until his third-inning single Wednesday, then doubled into the left-field corner in the fifth inning. In the Orioles’ three-run seventh inning, he singled to right field and rounded first hard, allowing him to take second when right fielder Chris Taylor bobbled the ball.
“It was awesome,” Hays said. “I’ve been working for this moment today for two years, to come out and play an aggressive style of baseball like I do.”
“I think anytime we bring anybody up, we love to see their tools and we love to see guys have success,” Hyde said. “Austin, kind of unfairly, sat for five or six days before he got here. But he’s settling in, and I think you saw his athleticism tonight, and you’ve seen it in the outfield. But I love the way he ran the bases. I like the way he uses the whole field. I thought he got on some fastballs tonight and drove them the other way. It was great to see.”
Hays acknowledged Wednesday that he’s a different player and person than the one who exploded onto the scene in 2017, and that’s making this September trial feel different.
“In 2017, I hadn’t dealt with a whole lot of failure, and everything happened really fast,” he said. “I was young. I was one year out of college, so being able to go through a couple big league spring trainings, get to know the guys in the locker room, build some relationships, build some relationships with the coaching staff so far in spring training, I definitely feel like I know everyone who’s in here a little bit more. That definitely means a lot for a younger guy when he first comes up — you just feel more comfortable all the way around.”
Hays, 24, will get plenty of opportunity to show what being that comfortable can do for his play in the final three weeks of the season. The Orioles are without a natural center fielder on the roster and Hays was tapped even before Cedric Mullins’ fall from being a player who could fill that role long-term.
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“Now it’s about getting major league at-bats and continuing to develop,” Hyde said. “Once you get here, it’s not easy to stay here. You’ve got to continue to work and improve and there’s going to be adjustments made to him. I think you saw him get on some elevated, plus fastballs tonight. As the league sees that, he might not be getting elevated plus fastballs. He might be getting breaking balls down. It’s just all of those types of things and learning how to be a major league hitter.”