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With new mindset, speedy Hays taking it slow

@JakeCrouseMLB
March 1, 2020

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Austin Hays is no stranger to speedy travel. It’s not just his childhood in Volusia County, Fla., where he and his dad would go to watch the truck races at Daytona International Speedway. It’s not just his wheels in the outfield, where he ranks in the top

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Austin Hays is no stranger to speedy travel.

It’s not just his childhood in Volusia County, Fla., where he and his dad would go to watch the truck races at Daytona International Speedway. It’s not just his wheels in the outfield, where he ranks in the top 15 percent of all MLB players with a 28.6 ft/sec sprint speed, allowing him to make highlight-reel grabs in center field.

But it's also in his trajectory with the Orioles, a club with which he’s gone from 2016 Draft pick to frontrunner for starting center fielder in ‘20. Hays, a third-round selection by Baltimore, began his career in Class A Short-Season Aberdeen in June of '16. A year later, he split his time in the Minors evenly between Class A Frederick and Double-A Bowie -- 64 games apiece -- before Baltimore called up its then-No. 2 prospect, per MLB Pipeline.

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He was the 91st overall selection but the first 2016 draftee to be called up. As Hays puts it, “Everything happened really quick.”

It’s not the usual route for prospects these days. Even the most touted players out of college will spend at least a couple years in the Minors before cracking the Major League roster. But when Hays hit 32 homers en route to finalist honors for Baseball America’s 2017 Minor League Player of the Year Award, the Orioles felt they had to have a look.

Was it too early?

“I’m really happy with the way things went and the opportunities that I got,” Hays said. “I just think that mentally, I wasn’t ready yet for everything that comes with being called up and the atmosphere of everything. But it was great to just get those experiences as early and as quick as I did.”

Was it worth it? It appears so.

Hays, now Baltimore’s No. 5 prospect, attributes a lot of his success last season to that initial experience. He obviously had a pro’s feel at the plate, batting .309/.373/.574 with six doubles and four homers in 21 games in 2019. He felt free enough to be a playmaker in center field and not second guess his routes.

But beyond experience and skills, a large part of what gives Hays an edge compared to others trying to break camp is a new mentality. The first thing to overcome was the fear of failure. Some guys are better than others at blocking out the doubts, but the dreaded demotion is always a lingering possibility.

“I’d already come up, not played well, been sent down. So there was really nothing to be scared of at that point, because I’d gone through it all,” Hays said. “… Once you go through it, it’s like if it happens, it happens -- so be it. I’m just going to go play my game and make the most of it.”

Then there’s the unfortunate reality of baseball as a physically demanding game. Hays needed right ankle surgery in 2018, which cost him to miss much of the offseason, though he came back and hit five homers in last year’s Grapefruit League slate. He had more injury struggles, including a strained right hamstring, but he eventually worked his way healthy to end the year in Baltimore.

Hays credits his family, friends and especially his wife, Samantha, with helping him not get down on himself in those long days spent at home, unable to run around or swing the bat.

“If you’re being negative on yourself, you’re just going to sit there and drive yourself crazy, so my wife is a huge help for me,” Hays said. “The last couple of years, just keeping my head on straight, keeping a positive mindset and just turning the page. ‘It’s going to get better. You’re going to be back on the field. You’re going to get back to where you were.’”

The mindset he’s gained from this fast-then-slow process has him content with what he brings to the table in Spring Training. He’s not out to “prove” any one thing. Rather, he’s in position to remind the Orioles what he’s capable of when they set the Opening Day roster.

“I’m just trying to play my game,” he said. “I just want to come out every day with a lot of energy and play the game the right way, play hard. So if I’ve got an opportunity to get a ball in the outfield, I’ll go get it. Try to steal some bags and just continue to try to have some really good at-bats.”

Jake Crouse is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @JakeCrouseMLB.