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The Austin Hays Problem

The success of the 2023 Baltimore Orioles was a surprise to many around the baseball world, but it was clear that the core for the future was set: Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle, the list goes on; but one oft-forgotten key contributor to the 2023 team was Austin Hays. An All-Star in 2023, Hays had a career year, posting a 2.5 fWAR and a 112 wRC+ in 144 games while helping the Orioles win 101 games and the AL East division title. However, things could not be any worse for Hays in the 2024 season. He has struggled to get anything going at the plate, his defense has regressed, and he was on the IL for nearly a month with a left calf strain. To better understand his struggles, we need to take a closer look at his underlying numbers.

At surface level, Hays’ 2024 numbers thus far look abysmal. He’s slashing .175/.243/.222 with a .465 OPS and a 34 wRC+ in 70 plate appearances. Before going on the IL on April 22nd, Hays had a -8 wRC+ and went 5-45 with just 5 BBs (one intentional) and 0 extra base hits. He has just 3 extra base hits on the year (all doubles) and, per Statcast, has struggled to hit the ball in the air as his FB% has plummeted from 29.7% in 2023 down to 22.0% in 2024. Hays is underperforming his career numbers in several statistics, including Barrel% (6.0% in 2024 vs. 7.1% career), average launch angle (9.9 degrees vs 11.2 degrees), FB% (22.0% vs 25.4%), and Pull% (34.0% vs 38.3%). Additionally, his defense has severely regressed, going from 5 DRS in 2023 to -4 in 2024.

While Hays has been absolutely dismal thus far, there is still some hope that he may rebound to some degree and be able to positively contribute to the Orioles this season. Firstly, since returning from the IL on May 13th, he has been much better at the plate:

Austin Hays – Before and after IL stint (data from Statcast and Fangraphs)

A. HaysAVGSLGwRC+GB%HardHit%Exit VeloLaunch AngleWhiff%
Before IL.111.111-850.0%29.4%87.1 mph6 degrees29.1%
After IL.333.50013637.5%50.0%93.8 mph18 degrees22.9%

This shows that Hays’ left calf strain, which put him on the IL, may have been a cause for his poor performance early in the season.

Secondly, if you look at Hays’ underlying numbers, you will see that he has improved at the plate in various areas and that he is matching, if not exceeding, many of his career numbers in 2024 thus far. There is little difference between his batted ball data from 2023 to 2024 or between 2024 and his career numbers, with the exception of his HardHit%, which is nearly 5% higher than his career average.

Hays has also been more selective at the plate, posting career-best numbers in O-Swing% and Z-Swing% and seeing more pitches in the strike zone.

Lastly, Hays has been extremely unlucky as his expected stats (xStats) are far better than his actual results. (Source: Baseball Savant)

Hays has been one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball this season (min. 50 PA) and he ranks in the top 5 in negative xSTAT vs raw stats differential in the entire league, indicating that he is due for positive regression this season.

Austin Hays has struggled this season, no doubt about it, but there is reason to believe that he will return to his 2023 form, or close to it, in the near future. His strong showing after his return from the IL already gives Orioles fans a sense of optimism and hope that he can bounce back after his dismal start. If he does return to form this season, he will play an important role in the Orioles’ quest to win back to back AL East titles and maybe even a World Series.


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