SARASOTA, Fla.—Austin Hays thought 2018 was going to be the year that he secured a major league job. He’d rushed through the Orioles’ system in 2017 and, suddenly, he was in the big leagues — just 15 months after he was drafted.
A season in which he hit .329 in 128 games at High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie earned him a promotion to the Orioles in September 2017. Hays, a third-round draft pick in 2016, became the first player from that draft to appear in the majors.
After an injury-riddled 2018 season, Hays is ready to try again. He entered spring training a year ago with 20 games of major league experience and a .217 batting average.
A year later, Hays still has a .217 major league average. The Orioles used a franchise-record 56 players in their lost season, and Hays wasn’t one of them.
A left ankle injury cost Hays much of last season. After surgery on it last September, the 23-year-old is hoping to get back on track in 2019.
Hays played in just 75 games—66 with the Baysox and nine on a rehab assignment with Short-Season Aberdeen — and hit just .235 with 12 home runs and 46 RBIs in 2018.
“It was a very big learning experience,” Hays said. “I had never had surgery. I never had gone through a skid like I went through last year. I’d never gone through a real rehab, either. It was a big learning experience going through those things. Staying positive through all those things I learned a lot about myself and my character – just how to deal with things that aren’t going my way.”
Hays arrived in Orioles camp on Friday after an offseason devoted to strengthening the ankle.
“It was a lot of running, a lot more running this season than last season with a focus on the ankle,” Hays said. “Just having the right form, putting the weight in the right spots and just getting everything back to full health.
“Yesterday was my last test. I did some baserunning stuff. I ran with the cleats on. I hit the bag. Rounded the bag. Went first to third with a secondary (lead). That was the last test for us as far as anything we can do without playing games.”
Hays got off to slow start in 2018, and things went south quickly.
“I just had noticed that I started running differently because my ankle started to hurt, so I built up some bad habits,” Hays said. “When I first started coming back, I was running with the weight on the inside part of my foot differently than I had usually run. So, I had to reinforce where my foot should be hitting the ground and where the weight should be.”
Manager Brandon Hyde is eager to work with a healthy Hays.
“I’m looking forward to diving in with Austin — the year that he had in ’17,” Hyde said. “I understand the year he had last year. A big piece for us going forward.”
The Orioles don’t have a right fielder, and Hays wants to put himself in contention for the position.
“I’m on the 40-man,” Hays said. “I’m here to do my best and try to win a job. That’s what we’re all here to do. There’s going to be opportunities. We’ve just got to take advantage of them where we get them.”
Hays’ success in 2017 made last year’s disappointment more difficult.
“I think it was almost harder because of how good 2017 went,” Hays said. “I didn’t have to deal with any injuries. I didn’t have any skids. I had moved up two, three levels. I hadn’t gone down a level. So I’d say that was definitely different than the year prior.”
Hays missed more than two months last season because of the ankle injury and wasn’t able to follow up on his progress in 2017.
“It was very difficult because there was never a set timeline,” Hays said. “It was, ‘Let’s give it a month and see how it reacts to this.’ Because we had tried different things. So, it was very frustrating because I would wear the boot for a month and then I’d come out of it, and I’d go to run, hoping it would feel better and then realizing I was right back in the same spot I was a month before that.
“It was difficult to stay positive and keep a good mindset throughout, but I’m just glad I have peace of mind now knowing that everything that was in there causing everything is fixed.”