On July 9, 2023, Austin Hays wrapped up the best first half of his career by going 2-for-5 with a homer to raise his OPS to .853. Two days later, Hays started the All-Star Game in Seattle.  

However, not much has gone right for Hays since then. 

Hays posted a .667 OPS in the second half and has followed that with a very alarming start to 2024 with a .269 OPS and zero extra-base hits after 18 games and 46 plate appearances. 

So, what exactly has caused Hays’ dreadful start? The two main culprits are his exit velocity and groundball rate. 

In 2023, Hays had an average exit velocity of 89.4 MPH, which put him in the 52nd percentile for hitters according to Baseball Savant. This year, his average exit velocity has dropped by 3.1 MPH, giving him an 86.3 MPH average exit velocity that ranks in the 20th percentile this season.  

Unsurprisingly, his hard-hit rate has declined along with his exit velocity. Hays hit the ball at least 95 MPH when he put the ball in play 40.1 percent of the time in 2023, now in 2024 his hard-hit rate has declined to 35.5 percent.  

Meanwhile, Hays’ groundball percentage in 2023 was 44.8 percent and has increased to 51.6 percent this season. The league-average groundball rate is 43.2 percent, so Hays is certainly hitting more grounders than the average hitter.  

As you would expect, Hays’ increase in groundballs has also come with a lower average launch angle. In 2023, his average launch angle was 10.4 degrees and now it has fallen to 5.6 degrees.  

Hays has also seen pitchers approach him differently than in 2023. In 2023, Hays saw a fastball, cutter or sinker 52.8 percent of the time and this year those pitches account for 64.4 percent of what he’s seen.  

Additionally, it’s worth noting that Hays’ approach hasn’t become radically different this year. He has seen a minor increase in how often he swings, how often he swings at the first pitch and how often he chases, but it hardly seems like a big enough change to explain a .269 OPS. 

 On top of that, Hays is doing this with virtually identical strikeout and walk rates from last year.  

 In 2023 he struck out in 24.9 percent of his plate appearances and this year he’s striking out 23.9 percent of the time. Meanwhile, his walk rate was 6.7 percent in 2023 and 6.5 percent this season. Hays isn’t slumping from too many K’s or too few walks, he’s simply just not doing much when he puts the ball in play. 

Going forward, Hays finds himself in quite the pickle. The easiest way to break out of a slump is getting regular at-bats, but Hays has found himself rapidly losing at-bats thanks to the emergence of Colton Cowser.  

After beginning the year as the fourth outfielder, Cowser has become one of the three regulars in the outfield thanks to his red-hot 1.178 OPS. Hays began the year with four straight starts, but has yet to appear in the lineup more than two times in a row since April 2 thanks to Cowser.  

 

Hays has also been able to get some pinch-hitting chances since April 2, but it’s pretty clear that the Orioles aren’t willing to be patient with Hays if he’s not one of the three best outfielders. This is the correct decision for a team with World Series aspirations, even if it’s not quite ideal for Hays. 

Going forward, it seems like the easiest way for Hays to find more at-bats is Cowser cooling off.  

While Cowser’s 1.178 OPS is certainly an encouraging start, it’s also highly unlikely to remain that high once we have a larger sample of games.  

I’m not expecting Cowser’s OPS to dip all the way to 2023’s .433 figure, but even the biggest Cowser fan should be able to admit that a 1.178 OPS shouldn’t survive until September. If Cowser eventually finds himself in a stretch of something like 2-for-20 or 4-for-30 then that could be when Hays reclaims some of his playing time. 

Hays’ production also feels notable when there’s two outfielders at AAA who are worthy of major league roster spots. Heston Kjerstad, who made the 2023 playoff roster, has a 1.230 OPS with Norfolk, while Kyle Stowers has also been quite productive with an .893 OPS.  

 

However, it doesn’t seem likely that either will replace Hays just based on what they offer. Hays is a right-handed hitter who the team still trusts on defense, while Kjerstad and Stowers are left-handed hitters without much of a reputation for solid defense. If anyone in AAA is going to be called up as a Hays replacement, it’ll likely be Ryan McKenna.  

Hays also isn’t a free agent until after the 2025 season, so they can’t just run out the clock on his roster spot and avoiding worrying about it after this year. 

As of right now the Orioles have been able to survive a trusted veteran in a major slump, but it’ll certainly be easier to keep winning if Hays returns to his 2023 self.  

 

Rose Katz
Rose Katz

BSL Analyst

Rose Katz is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, where she worked for The Diamondback as the online managing editor and a sports blogger. As a student, she spent almost all of her time on campus in The Diamondback’s newsroom or at Xfinity Center, Ludwig Field and Maryland Stadium. Rose gained intern experience with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN).

X