Haysed and Confused: What’s Fueling Austin’s Breakout?


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On Wednesday evening, an eight-run seventh-inning outburst in opposition to the Yankees catalyzed one other Orioles win, bringing their report to 32–17, second greatest within the majors. Among the many highlights within the body: Adam Frazier introduced dwelling three with a shot off the foul pole, and Gunnar Henderson plated two with a pinch-hit double. Understandably misplaced within the scrum was the primary hit within the rally, a 109.6 mph scorcher off the bat of Austin Hays that snuck by the infield.

With two hits in 4 at-bats Wednesday, Hays introduced his season slash as much as .308/.351/.484 and his wRC+ to 131. The joy that has come together with the Child Birds — specifically Henderson, Adley Rutschman, and Grayson Rodriguez — has overshadowed what seems to be a breakout season for the left fielder regardless of his personal former prospect standing. It’s simple to neglect that again in 2017, Hays homered 32 occasions as a 21-year-old between Excessive-A and Double-A, incomes a call-up and not using a single Triple-A look. He was the first 2016 draftee to make the majors.

However he struggled in his cup of espresso after which once more within the minors the subsequent season, working round an ankle damage that ultimately required surgery. He made it again to the majors in 2019 and have become an everyday in 2020, although he missed extra time with a sprained thumb within the latter 12 months and performed by a hernia in 2021. All through this era, he developed a status as a bruiser, however his manufacturing settled in round league common.

Coming into this 12 months in good bodily form and getting into his prime at 27 years outdated, Hays appeared poised for a breakout. At occasions a free-swinger, he’s reached peak selectivity this 12 months, one other indicator of his maturity. However he’s additionally made some tweaks to his swing, leaving me to marvel: what’s actually answerable for his higher numbers this season? In a spring coaching interview with former Baltimore Solar beat reporter Jon Meoli, the right-handed slugger described the adjustments as half of a bigger try and faucet again into his pure all-fields energy. What higher time to take action than after the Orioles moved the fences again in left discipline?

However has Hays ever actually harnessed his supposed all-fields potential in his skilled profession? Previous to this 12 months, his Oppo% on flyballs within the majors was simply 34.1%, significantly beneath the most important league common of 39% from 2017 to ’22 (the identical timespan). For his stints within the minors, we don’t have the power to separate flies by spray route, however we can take a look at Hays’ Oppo% throughout all batted ball varieties. Throughout that wonderful 2017 marketing campaign within the minors, when he was maybe final at full power, his Oppo% barely topped 25% and 23% in Excessive-A and Double-A, respectively. The key-league common Oppo% from 2017 to ’22 was 25%, a mark he solely exceeded within the minors by a noteworthy margin throughout poor 2018 and ’19 campaigns at Double-A and Triple-A, respectively. Moreover, previous to this 12 months, his Oppo% within the majors was simply 23.4%, although he’s posted decrease pull charges than he did within the minors.

Regardless, in 2023, Hays’ total Oppo% has risen to twenty-eight.9%, and also you guessed it: most of that is because of his outcomes on fly balls. Granted, he’s solely hit 40 of them this season, however 21 of them have gone to proper discipline. In his main league profession prior, solely 34.1% of his flies went in that route. So he’s achieved his objective, however has it been price it?

I wasn’t certain why Hays determined to go on this route. Along with by no means breaching this territory of maximum spray hitter earlier than in his skilled profession, proof from his time within the minors steered that it may not be one of the best thought. However extra importantly, contemplate the next from his time within the majors:

Austin Hays’ Fly Balls

Spray % wOBA Exhausting% n
Pull 27.8 0.733 43.7 103
Heart 38.1 0.223 40.4 141
Oppo 34.1 0.178 19.8 126
Pull 22.5 0.602 55.6 9
Heart 25.0 1.016 70.0 10
Oppo 52.5 0.240 19.0 21

This 12 months, his wOBA on oppo flies has improved considerably, and whereas it handily outpaces this season’s league common wOBA of .184 (.192 for righties) on these balls, it nonetheless doesn’t appear price sacrificing pulled or heart ones. On 19 pulled and heart flies this 12 months, he’s managed 10 hits, together with 4 homers, 4 doubles, and a triple. Traditionally, his oppo flies have underperformed relative to his pulled and heart ones, and this 12 months has been no totally different.

Effectively, besides that his efficiency on heart flies has been otherworldly. There’s definitely an argument to be made that the revamped swing is behind these numbers, however the pattern is basically small. Plus, even when the swing is the trigger, it seems to permit just for a restricted variety of these huge heart flies; the oppo fly balls actually appear to be coming on the expense of different fly balls greater than anything.

Surprisingly, Hays’ groundball and line drive distributions haven’t actually modified. Earlier than this 12 months, 17.1% of these batted balls went oppo; this 12 months, 16.2% of them have. That’s in all probability factor, as a result of Hays was shifted extra usually — with three infielders to the left of second base, as decided by Baseball Savant — than the common righty final season, albeit solely 18.1% of the time. Both method, sustaining his groundball and line drive distributions will at the very least permit him to win a number of bonus factors of batting common utilizing that further actual property to the left aspect. On 74 grounders and line drives this 12 months, his .446 BABIP is a major enchancment over his earlier .389 mark.

In case you’re questioning, that .446 quantity comes from a 72/28 grounder/liner break up, and the .389 comes from a 70/30 break up, in order that isn’t what’s driving the change. However shift ban isn’t the only real trigger both, as a result of his Exhausting% on these batted balls this 12 months has been at 41.9% in comparison with a mere 26.9% earlier than. And whereas Exhausting% is considerably subjective, Statcast agrees, placing his total hard-hit charge (p.c of balls with an exit velocity of at the very least 95 mph) at a career-high 43.9%. His 13.2% barrel charge, additionally a career-high, is greater than double his major-league common beforehand.

However once more, none of that is coming from his oppo flies. Simply 4 of his 21 have been hit arduous in line with Exhausting%; at a 19% charge, that’s barely beneath his profession prior (19.8%). However, he’s crushing his fly balls to left and heart.

If I needed to guess what’s answerable for Hays’ enchancment in 2023, his career-bests in touch high quality, I’d put my cash on his clear invoice of well being. His total wOBA on fly balls has improved, and it’s attainable the revamped swing is behind his success on balls hit to heart. However whether it is, it might be inadvertently, as a result of in his interview he particularly emphasised eager to drive the ball to the open swath of grass in proper heart. Right here, his spray chart is especially telling:

That acreage is sort of solely devoid of hits, making it arduous to imagine the swing is doing what it’s meant to. So it’s attainable there’s one other gear ready for Hays if he can shift a few of his flies again to heart and left. That will be a dangerous experiment, although, simply in case the brand new swing actually is driving a few of these enhancements. It’s anybody’s guess if the Orioles, who had been content material to take a seat out a lot of the offseason however are off to such a powerful begin, can be prepared to tackle such a danger.

Statistics are as of end-of-day Tuesday, Might 23 except in any other case specified.

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