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Orioles observations on Austin Hays being back to his best, Anthony Santander’s walks and more | ANALYSIS

Plenty of Orioles hitters have had good stretches at times during this spring training; DJ Stewart and Cedric Mullins started hot, and Ryan Mountcastle has been better in the last week or so.

Austin Hays, however, has never let up. That’s a good development for an Orioles team that has been hoping for the best of him for years now as he’s dealt with injuries.

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“When Austin Hays is healthy, he’s an exciting player,” manager Brandon Hyde said Monday. “He’s shown signs of that the last two years. He’s swinging the bat great right now. He made one mistake in the outfield today but he’s been great defensively in right field and center field and left field, he’s played all three spots and done a nice job. But he stole a base, got a good jump and stole a base today. Making things happen. That’s the kind of player he can be.”

In Monday’s 6-5, eight-inning loss against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hays added two more hits and scored twice to bring him to 14-for-37 (.378) on the spring with a 1.047 OPS to lead Orioles regulars entering the last week of Grapefruit League games.

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The last time he was consistently healthy for a full season was his full-season debut as a professional in 2017, when he shot from High-A Frederick all the way to the big leagues on the back of one of the best seasons in all of minor league baseball.

But Hays has been on and off the field since. In 2020, he missed nearly a month with a rib fracture that stunted his progress.

This spring, Hays seems to have found the mix of athleticism, approach and health that has kept the Orioles enthralled for years.

“I think what has helped me have a good statistical spring so far is I’m doing a good job of controlling the zone,” he said. “I’m keeping my aggressiveness at the plate, but doing a better job of being aggressive to pitches that I can do damage with and hit balls hard — a lot less weak-contact balls that are put in play. If I can just continue to do that, I think I can continue to have success.”

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Hays entered spring in the center field mix with his longtime friend and teammate Mullins, and even though the signing of Maikel Franco means less designated hitter at-bats and less lineup flexibility that can allow Hays to play a corner spot in place of Mountcastle or Anthony Santander, he still projects to get plenty of opportunities with his ability to play all three outfield spots.

And if he keeps his spring production up, Hays might be able to deliver on the promise he’s held since that debut in 2017.

Keep it moving

Two more walks for Anthony Santander in Monday’s game give him a team-best nine this spring, an actualization of his offseason plan to work on his plate discipline to take the next step toward being a consistently dangerous hitter.

But Monday showed it’s also a work in progress. He also struck out twice and chased some pitches in doing so. In the first inning against Mitch Keller, Santander fouled off a ball on the inside edge to open the at-bat, but swung through two fastballs above the zone to end a six-pitch strikeout — a plate appearance in which only the first pitch was judged in the strike zone by MLB’s Statcast program.

He walked in his next two at-bats, getting called balls on some borderline pitches in the second before again chasing an elevated fastball from Duane Underwood Jr. to go down on three pitches in his fourth and final at-bat.

Only the regular season and quality pitchers who can execute a plan against Santander will show whether his discipline is for real. But laying off on the chase below the zone can only be so effective if a modern pitcher knows he can elevate a fastball late in the count and get Santander to go after it.

As you were saying…

Opening Day starter John Means is trying to do a better job of putting hitters away once he gets to two-strike counts in this his third full major league season, and his start Monday showed that’s a work in progress.

In a 32-pitch first inning, 20 of those came with two strikes. He had already allowed a run when he started out Colin Moran 0-2 and ended up needing 11 pitches to strike him out after five foul balls. He started Anthony Alford 0-2 before three straight balls and four foul balls evened the count, but he put him away with a groundball.

Means got better as the day went along, striking out the last two batters he faced in the fourth inning despite allowing three runs on four hits with three walks in 3 ⅔ innings. He got seven swinging strikes on 82 pitches.

Considering the state of the rest of the Orioles’ rotation, Hyde said a better version of Means who can record twice that many outs once the season starts will be vital to a competitive team in 2021.

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