Austin Hays is not one to wait for anything when it comes to baseball, and yet that’s what has pretty much defined his season.
He waited for a shoulder problem to clear up and give him a chance at a major league spot this spring. He waited for that good feeling that carried him to top prospect status in an unparalleled year at the plate in 2017 to return once his season got going.
And now, he waits for the bone bruise and tendinitis in his ankle to clean up so he can get back on the field and, if not be part of the Orioles’ pending youth movement at the majors, at least get back to feeling good about his game again.
“Being in the boot, you’ve got a lot of sitting around, a lot of time to think about why things were going the way they were and how to fix it, how to combat it,” Hays said. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with our rovers and our coordinators and hitting coaches, and I think we’ve had a lot of good conversations about why things were going the way they were, and what I can do to fix it.”
Hays, after hitting .329 with 32 home runs and 32 doubles between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie last year before making his major league debut, was batting .224 with a .623 OPS and a dozen extra-base hits before he went on the disabled list with the current ankle trouble. He and the team’s medical staff are unclear as to how it even came about.
It bothered him for a few days, and he kept playing through it, then taped it up for a few more games, and before long couldn’t run without a limp.
“We still haven’t figured out where that came from,” Hays said. “I didn’t get hit by a pitch. I didn’t foul a ball off my foot. We still haven’t figured that out. It’s just tendinitis, and I had the bone bruise as well. We’re trying to get the tendinitis out of there and we should be good after that.”
He’ll be in the boot for about a week, at which point it’ll be a month since he last played, May 26.
Hays made clear he doesn’t blame the spring training shoulder injury that ultimately cost him weeks of game action and a chance at making the major league team, or the ankle injury now, for his lack of production.
“I was feeling good at the start of the year,” Hays said. “I felt healthy. I felt like I was prepared for the year.”
Hays and Gary Kendall, Bowie’s manager, want to see what the end product looks like when he’s back and healthy.
“He was a real confident hitter,” Kendall said. “When he got here, he was on a roll. Balls in the middle of the plate, he did a lot of damage. He ate up left-handed pitching. His power numbers, the singles, doubles — all those things he brought to the table. But not being healthy, and he played a little while with that nagging injury, I’d just like to see him once after the break when this injury is behind him and see what he is. He’s sort of the same guy.
“I think he just needs to get some confidence. He needs to get back in there and get some reps. I think he’s going to be fine. Everybody can get off to a little bit of a slower start, and I just think he got off to a slow start. The biggest thing is we just don’t [want] him to lose his confidence, because that was so huge last year with him coming up here. It just showed by the way he played. But his effort level, which he has a lot of, is good — the way he plays the outfield, runs the bases. The other things don’t miss a beat. He’s a productive player, and we’re looking forward to him getting back here.”
As Hays’ struggles built in the first half of the season, plenty of theories emerged inside and outside the organization about their causes. Because he came in looking stronger and more physical after his offseason training program, some believed he’d added the wrong kind of muscle and possibly led to his health problems.
Rival evaluators saw someone whose all-fields approach had been replaced by a pull-heavy, power-oriented swing that didn’t jive with how teams had learned to pitch him. Hays struggled with spin away in his major league stint last year, and teams are pitching him that way this season, but those aren’t pitches that can be pulled. Kendall believes Hays’ adjustments in how other teams pitch him and what he can do with those pitches will bring back his earlier form.
Hays believes he was “just missing too many good pitches to hit” early in the count, putting him in two-strike situations more often and taking away some opportunities to be more aggressive.
He doesn’t believe there’s been a material change to his game. He doesn’t go back to anything mechanical when he’s looking to reclaim his 2017 stroke, but keeps going back to the confidence he carried with him all through one of the best seasons anyone in the minors put together.
“You work every day and put all the reps in to have the feeling like I did last year,” Hays said. “Last year, I had that feeling the whole year. It never really went [away] longer than a day or two, or lasted a week, or anything like that.
“Getting off to a cold start this year, it was a little bit different from last year because I never really had a stretch like that. Just learning how to deal with and how to come out of it, just like every player has to do at some point. It’s been a little bit different of a feeling, but I’m just trying to be the same guy.”