Healthy Hays thriving on both sides of the ball

June 5th, 2022

BALTIMORE -- Ask what he prefers to leave the ballpark with, and he’ll tell you it’s an outfield assist -- and specifically, one at home plate -- over a home run. If that’s the case, then his Saturday afternoon can be cast as a letdown.

But when you’re riding as high as Hays is, even the letdowns are red-letter days.

Hays’ three-run blast in the Orioles' 5-4 win over the Guardians was an encapsulation of two qualities. The first resembled the day the O's were having, needing only four hits (three home runs) to set up a rubber match with Cleveland on Sunday.

And the other has to do with Hays himself. The Orioles outfielder, playing as well as he has in his career with unhampered playing time, is thriving, abating some offensive holes to round himself out as a stalwart.

“He’s just maturing as a hitter,” said O’s manager Brandon Hyde. “He's starting to see more pitches now, the at-bats are improving from my first year here, and I like the way he's using the whole field. He really jumped on that slider. That was well-hit.”

Hays’ blast elevated his slash line to .294/.364/.455, with six homers, 12 doubles and 28 RBIs, each well on their way to setting full-season career highs. Among qualified American League outfielders, only five had a higher OPS than Hays’ .818 mark as of the last out on Saturday. Entering the day, only 10 owned an fWAR higher than his 1.2 -- a mark that merely climbed with the day’s production.

His early showing has made Hays, quite easily, the Orioles’ MVP. Could it make him their All-Star?

“Hays is capable of just about anything,” said starter Tyler Wells, who was limited to four innings due to workload concerns coming off a deeper outing in Boston. “He's got the glove, he's got the arm, he's got the defense, he's got the bat, he's got the speed. I mean, the guy is a very well-rounded player that I'm very fortunate to have on my side.”

Only two AL outfielders -- Myles Straw (eight) and Cedric Mullins (five), both of whom happened to be at Camden Yards on Saturday -- have more outfield assists than Hays, who is tied with the Astros’ Kyle Tucker at four. Hays didn’t throw out any runners on Saturday, but he did on Thursday, nabbing Mariners outfielder Jesse Winker trying to stretch a double into a triple with a 95 mph throw. And on Friday, he caught a flyout in left field before firing home a 100.6 mph strike on the fly.

Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor didn’t think to test Hays.

“It's a special arm,” Hyde said this week, “and one of the best arms in the game.”

But the power took center stage on Saturday, with Hays hammering his 107-mph homer a Statcast-projected 411 feet over Camden Yards’ “Walltimore.” It was his second time homering to left field at Camden Yards this season, with those two representing his only long balls at home.

Hays’ blast was crucial on Saturday, with the O’s runs all coming on homers. It began with Trey Mancini’s second in his past four games, after homering just three in his first first 47 (and never at home), and ended with Rougned Odor’s blast onto Eutaw Street in the fourth inning -- all off Cleveland starter Triston McKenzie.

Mancini’s, tracked at 438 feet, was the Orioles’ longest of the season. Odor’s was the first O’s blast to Eutaw this season and only the second of any player in 2022. The first? Guardians second baseman Andrés Giménez … in the second inning.

“Warms up, ball starts to jump. We kind of knew that was going to happen,” Hyde said. “ … We made the hits count.”

Hays was a centerpiece of the Orioles’ might on Saturday, as he’s been all season. From an injury-riddled tenure after serving as the club’s third-round pick in the 2016 Draft, he’s finally showing Baltimore the homegrown star he can be, firmly entrenched as a threat both on offense and defense.

While Hays didn’t both throw out a runner and homer on Saturday, he did both on May 5 -- the single-game encapsulation of his five-tool talent. The only other thing he might need to do this season? Perhaps he can homer, as a right-handed hitter, onto Eutaw Street -- and become the true unicorn the Orioles feel he’s showcasing.

Granted, no right-handed-hitter has done it.