Sarasota, Fla. — Austin Hays had to change plenty in response to a 2018 season when nothing went right, from the way he ate and trained to the way he swung the bat.
Yet something as simple as relearning how to run after his previous gait injured his ankle so badly he needed surgery — and the fitness regimen changes he made as a result — might have helped unlock an even more dynamic player than the Orioles thought they had when he shot to the majors in his first full season in 2017 and emerged as the club’s right fielder of the future.
"He had told me, 'I'm going to be trimming up to start to tone my body up, not only to take care of my foot but to continue to develop my speed,' " said outfielder Cedric Mullins, Hays’ longtime friend and teammate. "When I finally got a chance to see him, he did exactly that. He looks good."
Said manager Brandon Hyde: “I think he's healthy, that's the first thing. His ankle feels really good. He's really an aggressive player. He's playing with no fear, playing really well defensively. He's aggressive at the plate. I just like the way he plays the game. He just plays with this — he's not afraid of anything, and I love that. He's opening up a lot of eyes in camp, for sure.”
The result of Hays' offseason work is really what he expected of himself last spring, when he had a few weeks of major league experience after a 2017 season in which he hit .329/.365/.593 with 32 home runs and 32 doubles between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie.
Instead of sprinting through spring training last year, he stalled because of injury and never got going. His shoulder got stiff and he missed several weeks. Intentionally or not, he ended up getting pull-conscious with his swing, taking away some of the benefits of his quick bat and contributing to a prolonged early season slump at Bowie. He finally succumbed to ankle soreness and went on the injured list in late May, returned with a solid August and had surgery in September.
I can tell he's got a little bit more spring in his step.— Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins on longtime friend and teammate Austin Hays
It turned out Hays, 23, was doing damage with every stride.
"The idea of it was my weight, because my ankle was bothering me, was shifting in," Hays said. "So because I was walking that way, when I would run, I was running on my heel, and my ankle would give [in]. I wasn't running on my toes, basically. … When you start running like this [on your heels], you can start over-striding and there's a lot of stuff on your hamstrings. But when you can stay on your toes, everything is efficient, I guess. That was kind of the idea behind it, just getting back to being able to run on my toes and keep my feet underneath me. That way, the weight doesn't get crushed into that one spot by turning it in."
There was more weight than ever before, too. Hays weighed around 210 pounds when he reported to camp last year, when a young man's mindset of "eat as much as I could, lift as much as I could, to be able to get bigger and gain weight" actually worked.
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"I was blowing up all of a sudden,” Hays said. “I think it's because my metabolism slowed down and I came into camp and I just couldn't move around the same way because I wasn't used to all that extra mass. I had to change my diet to get my body back to where it's always been. Now, I'm back at that 195. My body fat is where it usually is, so I just feel like myself. I feel comfortable."
He cut out sugars and most carbohydrates, and intermittently fasted during the offseason to help cut down on his body fat. The difference now, he said, is how light he feels on his feet.
"I'm able to stay on my toes, and I lost 15 pounds, 20 pounds since I came into camp last year," Hays said. "It was a lot of weight just kind of blasting into the ankle. I just feel light on my feet. I feel quick and fast."
The newfound athleticism has done plenty to change the potential impact Hays can make. A third-round draft pick out of Jacksonville University who only grew into his power as a pro, Hays has the baseball-rat tag that usually means someone is maximizing his tools. He does everything above average from a grade standpoint, and throws a little better than that, but adding speed to what's already a potentially impactful profile could make him even more versatile. Only Mullins has played center field more often than him so far this spring, and Hays made possibly the defensive play of the spring on a ball in the right-center-field gap Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, lunging on the warning track to take away extra bases. He hit his third home run of the spring Saturday and has a .320/.346/.800 batting line in 25 at-bats.
"My goal coming into camp was to come in and prove that I was healthy, and I feel like I've done that so far," Hays said. "My ankle feels good. We had a hiccup with it being a little swollen, but we took care of that. It's feeling great for the games now. I played two games in a row the other day, and it's feeling great [Monday] after the game yesterday. That was the first step, and the second step is just to play the game the way I know how and have fun doing it, and just let my best be enough."
His best now includes a smoother stride, and the right people are noticing.
"I can tell he's got a little bit more spring in his step," Mullins said. "I'm going to have to get him out there on a 60[-yard dash] and see what he's got. But he's looking really good out there."