Going Deep: Austin Hays is a Sleeper ROY Candidate
Baseball fans are a fickle bunch, often heaping and subsequently revoking praise on players in a spastic, see-saw fashion. The prospect stock of Baltimore Orioles outfielder Austin Hays serves as the perfect template for this mercurial truth. One year ago, Hays was coming off one of the best minor league seasons by a young hitter in recent memory, garnering praise from pundits and fans alike as a top-25 prospect. He was expected to secure a full-time MLB gig in 2018 and accumulate Rookie of the Year consideration. But a series of injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness sullied his 2018 season, halving his production from 2017 and keeping him stuck in AA for the entire year.
And poof. Just like that, the helium left the balloon, crashing Hays’ prospect stock in a fiery, Hindenburg-style wreck. Outside of devoted Orioles fans and writers, few are talking about Hays these days, in fantasy circles or otherwise. The same lists that had Hays as a top-25 prospect just one year ago don’t even mention him within the top 100 now.
However, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a player after an injury-riddled 12 months, especially one who put up one of the best minor league seasons for a 21-year-old hitter in the last decade in 2017 (more on that later). Hays is healthy in Baltimore’s spring training, displaying prodigious power at the plate along with impressive range in the outfield. He survived the first two rounds of roster cuts, outlasting potential outfield competition DJ Stewart and Yusniel Diaz, who were both assigned to the minors. While the Orioles might start Hays in AAA to ease him back into a regular workload, I suspect he will be forcing his way into the MLB lineup by early May and eliciting Rookie of the Year chatter by season’s end.
Up and Down
Hays, hailing from Daytona Beach, FL, was selected in the third round of the 2016 MLB draft and quickly garnered praise upon his pro debut later that season, slashing .336/.386/.514 with the Aberdeen Ironbirds of the New York-Penn League. Hays doubled down on this performance when the calendar crossed into 2017, mashing 32 home runs and earning a 163 wRC+ in an even split between high-A and AA the following season. Hays’ minor league dominance earned him an MLB call-up to Baltimore in September, making him the first player in the 2016 draft class to garner big league at-bats. Even though the then 22-year-old Hays struggled against MLB pitching across 63 plate appearances, his trajectory was firmly pointing upwards.
Hays’ impressive first two seasons of professional ball turned many heads in the prospect universe. Baseball America, the foremost prospect periodical, ranked Hays as the 21st-best prospect in the game heading into the 2018 season. MLB.com slotted him in at 23rd. Scouts raved about his compete level and five-tool skill set. He was the rare, young, minor-league hitter who managed to hit for power, average, and contact. The sky was the limit. One year later, Hays didn’t grace the top 100 of either list.
As well as Hays’ professional career went in 2016 and 2017, things went equally as poorly in 2018. Primed to contend for a starting gig in Baltimore out of spring training, Hays showed up to camp overweight and sputtered out of the gate. A sore shoulder then sidelined him for several weeks in the spring, derailing his hopes of beginning the season in the majors.
Hays was assigned to AA to start the year, but he failed to match the success of his previous season, striking out more and hitting for less power. In addition to the shoulder issue, Hays’ right ankle started to act up, which eventually drove him to the disabled list in mid May. After two months of rest, Hays returned to the field in late July, however his production sagged even further over the next month. A strong final three weeks to the season rescued his full-season batting line from complete oblivion; however, the .271 on-base percentage and .432 slugging rate he posted paled in comparison to his respective .367 and .594 rates at the same level in 2017.
The combination of the shoulder and ankle issues likely played a large role in sapping Hays’ power, evidenced by a decline in isolated slugging percentage from .264 in 2017 to .190 in 2018. Hays had offseason surgery to repair the ankle and slimmed down closer to his 2017 playing weight. These changes will hopefully allow Hays to tap back into the impressive power he displayed in 2017.
Hays, a right-handed hitter with a closed-off stance, isn’t the most imposing figure at first glance. His 6’0″, 195-pound frame is toned and strong, but he doesn’t possess an imposing presence at the plate. He makes up for his lack of size with a swing profile reminiscent of former AL MVP Josh Donaldson. Donaldson has a similar build to that of Hays and manages to generate loud contact with an accentuated leg kick and violent, torque-based, upper-body propulsion. Hays’ swing features a little less motion than Donaldson’s, but he maintains a similar leg kick and hand load.
Hays’ first MLB home run outlined these dynamics well. In a 1-0 count, New York Yankees reliever Chasen Shreve grooved a four-seam fastball over the plate—a pitch that Hays drove 392 feet over the opposite-field fence. From the center field vantage point, it’s easy to see Hays’ leg kick and the explosiveness of his swing.
Dialing into the side view of the swing shows the true mechanics at work. Hays’ leg kick is exaggerated; however, it’s quicker and less deliberate than Donaldson’s. When his right knee reaches its max elevation, Hays loads his hands further back behind his body. On the swing, Hays brings his hands forward and leg down in unison, creating a chain of kinetic energy that unleashes fury upon the baseball.
Scouting reports describe Hays’ approach at the plate as pull-happy. Sure enough, only six of Hays’ 48 career minor league home runs went to the opposite field. Scouts preach that Hays must avoid becoming too pull-conscious, which is apparently one of the issues he faced alongside injuries in 2018. But from the clips above, as well as the 430+ foot home run hit to dead center in a Grapefruit game last week, Hays’ power is dynamic. The closed-off stance, along with the significant bat speed generated by his swing mechanics, shows that Hays has the potential to spray homers to every part of the ballpark.
It’s likely that Hays’ right ankle issues in 2018 impacted his power. His stance uses his right ankle and foot as a springboard for hip rotation and subsequent swing power. While it’s difficult to quantify how much of an impact this injury had, Hays seems convinced that the ankle issue was a major contributor to his down season, exclaiming “You just never really feel like yourself, even though you trick yourself into thinking you are healthy. Once you actually get surgery and start feeling good again, you realize how hurt you were and how difficult the season was.”
Hays’ advanced power capabilities are only one part of his intriguing offensive profile. He also possesses above-average bat control and pitch recognition. It’s the combination of excess power and plate discipline that makes Hays particularly intriguing. But where does he stack up to other young hitters in this regard?
A Special Player
It can be difficult to differentiate the true potential of the prospects scattered across the minor leagues, with scouting reports often describing players in obtuse generalities that read like the review of a bottle of Pinot Noir on Wine Spectator. Traditional scouts are aware of the vagueries of their craft and supplement relatively generic player profiles with a 20-80 grade scale that attempts to provide some specificity and comparability to different traits like power, hitting, and speed. While this scale surely helps, it is often slow to adapt to changes in player performance (Rhys Hoskins‘ FanGraphs page still describes him as having 50-grade Game Power…) and ultimately isn’t of tremendous use when it’s not supplemented with statistical analysis.
There are three key stats I focus on when evaluating minor league players: wRC+, isolated slugging percentage, and strikeout rate. The first stat is the most important, as it’s an all-encompassing offensive statistic that adjusts for the run-scoring environment of the player’s league. Isolated slugging percentage, or ISO, outlines how much true power is displayed by subtracting a player’s batting average from their slugging percentage. Focusing on ISO weeds out certain players whose wRC+ was juiced by a level of BABIP fortune, elevated either through luck or inferior minor league defenses, that is unlikely to sustain itself in the majors. Meanwhile, strikeout rate serves as a great proxy for a player’s bat control and overall plate discipline. There are numerous minor league power hitters with high ISOs who strike out in nearly 30% of plate appearances—a rate that would balloon even further in the majors and prevent them from being an everyday player.
The last factor that we need to pay attention to is a player’s age in relation to the level of their competition. The Garrett Coopers of the world meet the aforementioned criteria; however, they do so as grown men in their mid-to-late 20s against younger competition. That’s not as impressive. We want to look out for young players, in the 19 to 21-year-old age range, who achieve the wRC+, ISO and K-Rate trifecta. The table below highlights the player seasons that achieved this, evidenced by a minimum 150 wRC+ and .225 ISO, along with a maximum 17.5% strikeout rate, over the last 10 years.
There are only nine cases of this happening out of nearly 10,000 minor league player seasons since 2009. The first half of the list includes current MLB players Jason Heyward, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Maikel Franco (RIP Oscar Tavares). Heyward and Hosmer, despite recent declines in play, were strong contributors for many years and signed $140 to $190 million contracts in free agency. Moustakas is a consistent 30-home-run hitter when healthy. Franco is the least impressive of the bunch, but he’s rattled off three straight seasons of 22+ home runs and has the makings of a very good player if he can make some adjustments.
The other side of the list includes players who are still prospects—headlined by Hays, who posted the second-highest ISO of the group. The rest of the list includes the best prospect of this generation in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., arguably baseball’s second-best prospect in Eloy Jimenez, and a top-10 prospect in Alex Kiriloff.
There is something exceedingly special about what Hays did in his 2017 season. Unfortunately, most across the prospect and fantasy landscape seem to have forgotten this because of an injury-riddled 2018 season.
Back on Track
Hays had a legitimately bad 2018 season and that should affect his prospect stock somewhat. However, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
Fortunately, Hays seems to have made the correct strides to get back on the right track. Over the offseason, Hays underwent successful corrective surgery on the right ankle that bothered him throughout 2018. In addition, Hays largely removed excess sugars and carbohydrates from his diet so he could slim down to 195 pounds: his 2017 playing weight. Prior to the 2018 season, Hays adopted an “eat hard, train hard” mentality that caused his weight to balloon to 210 pounds, which likely put undue stress on his ankle and decreased his overall mobility.
Brandon Hyde, the new Orioles manager, has certainly noticed Hays’ improved ankle and body shape, highlighting that “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.”
Hays is also filling up the Grapefruit League stat sheet, with an impressive .355/.375/.871 triple slash through March 12th. His .871 slugging percentage currently leads all players with at least 30 at-bats in both the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. While spring training stats can be misleading, the authority with which Hays is hitting the ball indicates that he might have rediscovered the magic from his 2017 season.
While he hasn’t locked down a big-league roster spot just yet, the demotion of DJ Stewart to the minors significantly increases the odds of Hays sticking with the Orioles on Opening Day. There is a chance that Baltimore brass wants to get Hays’ feet (and right ankle) wet in AAA before subjecting him to the rigors of an MLB travel schedule. However, even if that were the case, I would expect Hays to be up with the big league club in May and in the conversation for AL Rookie of the Year by season’s end.
Graphic by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)