SARASOTA, FLA. — For his mother’s sake, the story has received a slight tweak since Austin Hays’ boyhood. But how the Orioles outfielder came to bat barehanded had less to do with his hand speed than that of his legs.
As a youth player on Florida’s east coast, Hays always tried to steal when he reached base. Playing on fields with hard infield dirt, he made sure to wear batting gloves as a base runner to avoid the scapes that would otherwise cover his hands after he slid. But instead of tearing up his hands, the rough dirt tore through the gloves, prompting his mom, Terrie, to routinely buy him new pairs.
“I said originally that my mom was like, ‘I’m not gonna buy you any more batting gloves because you just burn through ’em one out of every game,’” Hays said. “But it was my choice. I felt bad going through so many pairs of batting gloves. It was like, ‘You know what? She doesn’t have to buy me any more. I’ll just stop wearing them.’"
Outside of one day as a high school underclassman — “It felt super awkward,” he said — Hays hasn’t worn batting gloves, in the batter’s box or on the base paths, since. It’s seemed to pay off.
He entered camp last month as well positioned for a spot on the Orioles’ Opening Day roster as he ever has been, thanks to a September in which he posted a .947 OPS with dynamic center-field defense.
As a result, Hays, 24, could be the Orioles’ Opening Day center fielder and leadoff man. He would savor his first opportunity to play in a major league game outside of the season’s final month. His hands might benefit just as much.
As he did while playing in college and the minor leagues, Hays regularly gets blisters and scrapes on his hands, a result of the friction between his hands and the bat. His biggest issue, he said, is cracking in the quicks below his fingernails, especially in cold, dry air. In his amateur and minor league days, Hays’ fix for any injury to his left hand was a bandage and tape.
“And if it was on my throwing hand, my right index finger or middle finger, I would just have to wear it, honestly,” Hays said.
But in the majors, he’s been provided with a solution. The Orioles’ training room features hot wax for him to dip his hands into. The wax then dries on his hands, and ironically, “it’s like a glove,” Hays said. Not only does the wax provide warmth, but it also moisturizes his hands to help prevent further cracking or the splitting of any of the calluses that have formed on his hands.
Hays said that he isn’t sure whether there are some broad advantages to wearing batting gloves, which are far more common. But he knows he prefers to go without.
“Personally for me, I just feel like [the bat is] deeper in my hand,” Hays said. “I can feel my bat more. When I put batting gloves on and hold the bat, I just feel like it’s not all the way in my hand just ’cause I’m not used to it.”
A rough spring, with a batting line of .160/.267/.280 entering Tuesday, certainly won’t convince Hays to change, though he admits to wishing his numbers were better. But he believes those stats are partly a product of how comfortable he is this spring. With a successful September in the majors in his back pocket — the first time he can say that after struggling in a September promotion in 2017 — Hays didn’t feel as big of a need to make an impression and focused more on seeing pitches in his early at-bats.
“I’ve had a little bit more success at the big league level now than I had in the last couple spring trainings,” Hays said. “I got my shot in ’17 and I didn’t play that well. I didn’t play well defensively. Made a couple errors on the base paths, so just having that success gives me a little bit more confidence that I can break with this team.”
Manager Brandon Hyde said he saw a confident Hays last spring, when he slugged .892 with five home runs in 37 at-bats coming off an injury-marred 2018, but added that he’s carrying himself differently this year. Hyde also pointed to improved jumps in the outfield as reasoning for why Hays, after the highlight reel that was his September cameo, could be a better defender in 2020.
“I think he’s walking around like a big leaguer this year,” Hyde said. “I think he has a ton of confidence. I like the style of play. I think he’s playing extremely hard, like I knew he would. I think he’s really improving defensively also. I like the plate discipline that I saw in September, and he’s done a nice job of that so far this spring, so we’re hoping that continues.”
Hyde said he hasn’t paid any attention to individual players’ statistics, noting the difficulty in assessing numbers that come from infrequent and limited plate appearances. Instead, his focus is on the quality of each at-bat, specifically bringing up Hays’ performance last week against the New York Yankees in Tampa as an example. Hays led off the game with a hard-hit infield single, then later doubled into the left-field corner on a pitch from Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman that the stadium gun had at 98 mph.
But it’s not all in the hands.
“So far, I’ve felt really good at the plate,” Hays said. “Mentally, I feel good. I feel like I’m competing up there. I’m just waiting for that consistency up there where you feel it every pitch.
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“I’m happy with the way my camp’s going so far. I feel like I’m competing at a high level.”