Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is calculated such that a league-average player is 20 runs better than a freely available replacement. We also write that as 2.0 WAR or two wins better than replacement level.

Austin Hays is a league-average player.

He has three “full” seasons in the Majors. If we prorate 2020 to 650 plate appearances, he would have posted 1.9 WAR. He had 2.2 WAR last season in 529 plate appearances – a pace of about 2.7 WAR over 650 plate appearances. This year, he’s at 1.4 WAR and a 650-plate appearance pace of 1.8 WAR. In 1,171 plate appearances over these last three seasons, he’s hitting .255/.308/.432 with 41 home runs, eight steals, a 5.5 percent walk rate, and a 20.1 percent strikeout rate.

For those who use Statcast, consider these images.

Blue is bad! In most respects, he trended the wrong way in 2022. That could mean he’s going to be a short-career guy or maybe he has a rebound on the way in 2023. Without a change in talent level, we can be confident expecting between 1.0 and 2.5 WAR per full season. That’s a fine player, even on a contending roster.

Consider this block of similar performers on playoff-bound clubs this season. The Dodgers have Cody Bellinger at 1.2 WAR in 486 plate appearances. The Padres squeezed a little more out of Trent Grisham and quite a bit less from Wil Myers. Astros part-time center fielder Chas McCormick is only a hair better than Hays. Myles Straw has been a terrible hitter for the Guardians since the first quarter of the season (with elite defense). The Blue Jays keep playing Raimel Tapia, and he’s flat-out terrible. The Rays have 415 plate appearances from -0.6 WAR Taylor Walls. The ghost of Josh Donaldson is pretty close to a Hays clone, and the Yankees have other strugglebuses too (remember Joey Gallo?). The Braves combo meal of Robbie Grossman, Adam Duvall, and Eddie Rosario barely has a pulse. The bottom half of the Mets lineup is piecemeal due to injuries. The Phillies spent most of the season trying to jumpstart Bryson Stott at shortstop. Meanwhile, center field is an ongoing disaster. The Cardinals… well, they’re quite good. Even so, Tyler O’Neill hasn’t been much better than Hays on a per-game basis.

Of course, in this day and age, a player isn’t doomed to remain the same. Even a decade ago, only a handful of players meaningfully changed their talent level from year-to-year. Statcast, biometric tools, and advances in “baseball science” have allowed anybody to transform themselves on a whim.

Hays has numerous pathways to improvement. A simple one is to work on increasing his average and maximum exit velocities. If you’ve noticed leaguewide exit velocities increasing, it’s because they are! Every season, more and more players set career-bests in barreled contact and max exit velocity. Hays is also below average with his swing decisions. Simply working to lay off one type of breaking ball outside of the strike zone could yield something like a five-point uptick in his wRC+. Then there are higher effort options – a new swing plane, wholesale adjustments to his plate discipline, or reporting to Spring Training in the “best shape of his life” could all yield better outcomes. He might also consider a shift in his approach in response to the deep left field at Camden Yards. There’s no question Hays is one of the most negatively affected players by the new dimensions.

Orioles Spin

From a planning perspective, the Orioles should continue to consider Hays a roughly league-average player. He has ways to become better but could just as easily slip into obscurity. The O’s brass knows more about his work ethic than I ever will.

It’s absolutely paramount that the Orioles improve the roster over the winter. The pitching staff has overachieved and needs to be reinforced just to replicate 2022. Obviously, replacing Rougned Odor is an important first step. Many observers (i.e. me) assume this will be accomplished by signing a shortstop or Nolan Arenado, thus pushing Jorge Mateo or Gunnar Henderson to the keystone. There are also numerous options filtering up through the minors.

Designated hitter and/or first base could take a nudge too. Ryan Mountcastle is an interesting young player who might need time (and a different venue) to fully realize his potential. He should be considered tradeable. A dedicated designated hitter is more of a nice-to-have, especially considering the minor league depth and Adley Rutschman’s valuable bat. That leaves the outfield where, presently, the in-house plan seems to be Anthony Santander, Cedric Mullins, and Hays with Kyle Stowers, Ryan McKenna, Terrin Vavra, and, eventually, Colton Cowser in reserve. A more impressive corner outfielder would be welcome – ideally, one who can fill a top-four spot in the lineup.

That needn’t come at the expense of Hays, at least not immediately. Even if a premium corner outfielder is acquired, Hays and Santander can bounce between a corner outfield slot and designated hitter with a few days lost to Rutschman until prospects force a different alignment.

What’s the market look like? Aaron Judge headlines an otherwise unimpressive group of free agent outfielders. Judge certainly has the power to ignore the left field wall. The next-best guy, arguably Mitch Haniger, does not. At that point, we’re talking about more league-average players. However, several of them are left-handed. Pure platoonmates like David Peralta or Tyler Naquin would fit any team’s budget and seemingly pair well with Hays. Joc Pederson and Michael Brantley (if healthy) are pricier variations of the same idea. Andrew Benintendi and Brandon Nimmo would work as full-time replacements. They’d also fill the leadoff role better than Mullins. However, I’m not sure Benintendi and Nimmo are enough of an upgrade on Hays to justify the expense. Joey Gallo’s out there too for anyone keen to reexperience Chris Davis. I happen to like Gallo, but the Orioles should be thinking high floor. Gallo’s a better fit for a team hoping to win the lottery.

On the trade front, it’s possible the Diamondbacks would consider swapping a young outfielder for a young infielder. Alek Thomas for Jordan Westburg and a second piece is plausibly fair, though it’s my opinion that an established outfielder would make for a better fit. In that vein, an outfield/DH like Kyle Schwarber or Nick Castellanos has a certain rationale to it. The Philadelphia system could use young, cost-controlled players. Playing the quintet of Schwarber, Castellanos, Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, and Alec Bohm is rather awkward defensively. I’ve always been of the opinion that the Phillies signed Schwarber and Castellanos because it was the best option at the time, with the intent to pivot out of one of them or Hoskins following the season. The Pirates ask for Bryan Reynolds is consistently described as comically high, though that can shift without warning. Ian Happ is both a one-year solution and also not very distinct from Hays.

And yes, the elephant in the room, Shohei Ohtani, could technically play outfield. Nobody’s going to do that to him. It would be pretty fantastic to have Ohtani in the designated hitter slot, even if that means a lower plate appearance total for Rutschman. In that event, an upgrade on Hays isn’t remotely necessary. The Orioles under Mike Elias have proceeded so cautiously that I doubt such a trade will come to fruition. Just as I doubt Judge is a plausible target.

Bringing this back to Hays, it’s my opinion that his spot on the roster is one to upgrade in 2024. There is lower-hanging fruit to pluck between second base and the rotation. Giving the farm an additional year of maturation before swapping out league-average players could help. However, more information does not always lead to increased clarity.

Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a fantasy baseball analyst for NBC SportsEDGE. He also contributes to “Front Office” content at MLB Trade Rumors. You can additionally find his work and support him directly at Patreon.com/BaseballATeam or follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam.

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