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Inside the tweak in Austin Hays' swing he and the Orioles believe will unlock more consistent power
Hays' opposite-field blast last week against Pittsburgh showed his reworked swing with a right-center bias is paying off.
Sarasota, Florida — Some spring training home runs mean more than others, and when Orioles outfielder Austin Hays drove a fastball from Pittsburgh’s Colin Holderman to right-center for the second of his four spring blasts last week, Orioles coaches realized they’d witnessed one that might have been telling.
Hays, who had his best run of production at the plate in his career in the first half of 2022 before tailing off badly in the second half, saw the all-fields power that defined his game early on had dissipated over time. For a variety of reasons, he spent the winter trying to get it back — and there’s a sense within the club that he succeeded.
“Last year I just felt the inability to use the right side of the field, and a loss of my power to right-center,” Hays told me this week. “It was just something that I was doing mechanically. To put it simply, I want to be able to use the whole field and I want to be able to hit balls out to right-center, especially now with the park being so much bigger pull-side. I have the power, and I can hit the ball hard enough to be able to hit homers oppo. I just wanted to get my swing back to where it was when I was able to do that.”
It's hard to Hays to identify how exactly those changes happened, he just recognized that at some point, he “started getting flat and across and hitting more ground balls.” He made some strides as he surged in the first half last year of standing taller and being more relaxed, as opposed to more crouched and feeling tight in his stance, but his attack angle meant the quality of contact wasn’t where he and the Orioles wanted it to be.
“I just wanted to get into a better position and make the right moves and the angles with my body to be able to drive the ball to right-center,” Hays said.
The changes involve him having “more direction towards right-center with my barrel,” he said, adding: “It’s more so just trying to have my direction work through the right-center field gap as opposed to swinging like, flat through the short-stop, staying through the big part of the field.”
Hays broadly had success when executing that type of contact in 2022; he hit 54 balls that Statcast defined as hard-hit line drives or fly balls to center-field or the opposite way with a .621 expected weight on-base average (xwOBA) and a .981 expected slugging percentage on them. However, of those 54, just 12 came after the All-Star break, signaling the type of change in his contact quality that Hays looked to reverse.
In the second half, he also hit the ball on the ground more often (46.6% compared to 41% in the first half, according to FanGraphs, while his second-half hard contact rate (23.9%) meaningfully fell off from the 34.5% clip of the first half.
Hays said he had conversations early in the fall with co-hitting coaches Ryan Fuller and Matt Borgschulte about his season, and they were on the same page as to next steps.
“I looked at how my season went and where I was good, where I was bad and what I needed to adjust, and going through it with them, they had a lot of numbers to show me, and everything that we had said matched up,” Hays said. “We were on the same page from the jump, so that was great, because I could go to them with anything I was feeling, and any drills that I felt could help with what I was trying to accomplish, they were fully on-board from the jump. It was great that we were all on the same page with everything.”
The results could help boost Hays’ performance during the season, especially considering how he’s pitched. Given his ability to turn on the ball with his quick hands, Hays has proven over the course of his career to be able to handle inside pitching. The natural counter for a pitcher would be to work him away, and an attack path that naturally carries his barrel the other way could better allow him to utilize his strength and drive the ball more frequently to right-center field.
Manager Brandon Hyde has noticed Hays’ change in approach as well.
“I love the way he’s swinging the bat,” Hyde said. “I like the way he’s using the whole field, hitting the ball hard to right field in past games. He’s doing a nice job in the outfield. So, I think he’s doing a nice job getting his at-bats and putting good swings on it in the game.”