I really enjoy the “anchor and punt” strategy in the outfield. That’s not an official phrase. And even it were, we’d have to change it. Football terms aren’t allowed ‘round these parts, but someone should tell the football editor about that. There was that one time when I let editor Pete push the 2020 fantasy baseball draft guide through because I was driving, and in the introduction he stated that we had everything—the “whole nine yards,” in fact. SMH Pete. That’s what I get for being a conscientious driver. But I digress.
I dig Austin Hays. He’s a great way to round out my fake outfields. I see 20/10 capability, and enough counting stats to matter due to possibly batting leadoff for Baltimore. So I’m openly stating that I like Hays up front. Let’s see if further research confirms my bias or tears it down. I’m trying to be neutral, okay?
Hays may bat leadoff for Baltimore in 2020. If we have a 2020. I digress again. Anyway, here are Baltimore’s ranks with regard to run-scoring over the last three years:
2017: 743 (16th)
2018: 622 (27th)
2019: 729 (22nd)
Not spectacular. But when a guy has a defined role—like Jonathan Villar last year as the Orioles’ leadoff man—he can do some damage. Villar managed 111 runs scored, and Trey Mancini chipped in with 106 runs. And their roles were unquestioned in Baltimore.
So is there another candidate for leadoff besides Austin Hays? Even Hanser Alberto—arguably the Orioles’ next best hitter—isn’t a great candidate. The man never walks, as last year’s .305 batting average but 2.9% walk rate illustrate. Despite the high batting average, Alberto’s .329 OBP was decidedly average. In contrast, Hays posted a .373 OBP over his 75-game sample in 2019. Which is something, even if the sample size is small. Hays’ 9.3% walk rate at the big league level was the best mark of his pro career, better than any of his minor league marks.
I’d love to have seen higher OBP marks in the minors from Hays, but he doesn’t strike out much and has shown that he’s willing to take a walk recently. For instance, at the Double-A level last year, he had a 8.2% walk rate, 18.0% strikeout rate, and a .328 OBP. And he was perhaps a bit unlucky with a .286 BABIP. Hays also has some wheels, checking in with a sprint speed of 28.6 ft/s, which ranks in the 85th percentile. He looks like as good a candidate as any to bat first in Baltimore. And if he does so for a “full season,” we should get enough runs to matter.
To me this is more of a team (and batting order) statistic. If you draft Hays right now, you aren’t truly banking on RBIs anyway—not for a guy who may hit leadoff for a bad team. Good thing his ADP of 260+ isn’t prohibitive.
Villar’s 73 RBIs from the leadoff spot last season look pretty solid to me. And who knows, maybe the Orioles manage their catcher pairing well, and we get some production from Ryan Mountcastle. Add that to some continued pop by Renato Nunez and some holding steady by Anthony Santander, and maybe this isn’t the worst lineup we’ve ever seen. Maybe. For reference, Baltimore’s RBI totals (and rankings) over the last three years:
2017: 713 (16th)
2018: 593 (27th)
2019: 698 (22nd)
In 2017, the Orioles had four guys contribute decent RBI counts. Manny Machado (95), Jonathan Schoop (105), Trey Mancini (78), and Adam Jones (73) were the guys. In 2018 it was pretty ugly, as Machado’s 65 was tops on the team—but he was traded to the Dodgers in July of that season, so there’s that. Last year, it was Mancini (97), Nunez (90), and Villar (73) paving the way. And Villar did that from the leadoff, don’t forget.
Obviously a lot of things need to break the right way. For starters, Hays would have to “grab the bull by the horns” and retain the leadoff gig. But there’s 70+ RBI potential (on a full season pace) within his range of outcomes.
Now for the fun part, right? Everyone digs the long ball. It’s been a while since I DFS’d, so let’s rehash some Baltimore Oriole park factors.
Oriole Park overall had a 1.262 ranking per ESPN’s park factor stat. For reference, anything over 1.000 favors the hitter, and exactly 15 parks were above that threshold in 2019, with Citi Field playing neutral at 1.000 and 16th overall. Oriole Park ranked fourth overall, with only Rogers Centre (TOR), Nationals Park (WAS), and Coors Field (COL) ranking ahead. In 2018, Baltimore’s 1.121 ranked 9th overall. In 2017, 1.236 ranked third overall. You get the idea. We all know this is a hitter’s park. I also scoped out recent work at Pitcher List regarding barrels and ballparks. If a player barrels a ball in Oriole Park, there’s a very high percentage (70.12% to be exact) that that hit will morph into a home run. Only the Great American Ball Park and Dodger Stadium ranked higher. So again...this is a great place to hit overall
As for Pitcher List work regarding barrels and handedness, Oriole Park ranked 10th in LHH Park Factor and 10th in lefty hitters’ pulled homers per barrel, at 76.0%. Not bad. As for righty bats—which Hays is—Oriole Park ranked first in RHH Park Factor and first in righty hitters’ pulled homers per barrel, at a whopping 85.1% rate. In short, this is a great place for any hitter to be, but especially a right-handed pull hitter. Hays turned in an average 40.0% pull rate last season in the bigs, but his recent MiLB history suggests he may have more of a pull tendency. For instance, at the Double-A level in 2018 he pulled 50.9% of balls and posted a 14.0% HR/FB rate. In 2019 at Double-A, it was a 48.9% pull rate and 15.8% HR/FB rate. And at the Triple-A level last year, he pulled 51.1% of balls with a 16.1% HR/FB rate.
No matter how much he pulls the ball in 2020, I think there’s definitely a 20-homer floor in Hays’ bat. Again, that’s assuming a full season of at-bats. Since we don’t know how long or short the 2020 season will be, I’m not coming off of my full season view for now.
I already mentioned the 85th percentile sprint speed. Now let’s see the success rates:
2018 Double-A: 6-for-9
2019 Double-A: 3-for-4
2019 Triple-A: 6-for-10
2019 MLB: 2-for-2
Overall that’s a 68% success rate. Not great. Not even good, really. For reference, Villar was 40-of-49 last year, an 81.6% success rate. That said, if Hays leads off he’ll probably get enough chances to sneak into double-digit steals. At the same success rate, he’d only need about 15 attempts to reach 10 swipes. 10-for-15 is a 66.6% success rate, for reference. Again, not great. But unless your league docks you for caught steals, those missed chances won’t matter. And sure, maybe he won’t see 15 attempts in a shortened season. But maybe he will? Who knows at this point? Point is, leadoff is a cushy spot to be and he’s got enough speed to make a difference.
Ah, the forgotten category. Hays hit .217 with a .273 BABIP in his first cup of coffee back in 2017. In his second stint last year, he batted .309 with a .333 BABIP. Far more line drives and far less grounders in his second stint probably aided in the uptick. There is a disturbing lack of hard contact at the MLB level, with rates of 31.1% and 30.9% in his first two stints in the bigs. Still, we’re talking a grand total of 41 games here, so small sample size applies to everything—good and bad. And some of these rates are site-specific. If you hop off of Fangraphs and move over to Statcast data, Hays’ hard contact rate rose from 28.9% in 2017 to 41.8% in 2019. That jives with a big bump in medium contact per Fangraphs in 2019. Here is Hays’ breakdown of soft/med/hard contact (per Fangraphs) in his two big league stints:
2017: 20.0%, 48.9%, 31.1%
2019: 7.3%, 61.8%, 30.9%
So he definitely hit the ball harder, and the increase in line drive rate from 15.6% to 22.2% is promising. His average exit velocity bumped from 84.8 mph to 89.8 mph (the MLB average was 87.5 mph). Hays’ expected batting average of .303 in 2019 jived with his actual .309 mark.
Projection systems put Hays around .250, which seems a bit low. THE BAT (.250) and the ATC (.251) are skeptical, but I view the .250 mark as more of a starting point (or floor). I like the .259 mark projected by Steamer much more, so that’s what I’m leaning towards.
A rough sketch to me—again with a full season lens—is 80 runs, 70 RBIs, 20 homers, 10 steals, and a .260 batting average. That’s similar to what Avisail Garcia chipped in last year (61 R, 20 HR, 72 RBI, 10 SB, .282 BA) when Garcia finished as the OF65 in the fake game. Difference is, I’d have Hays for more runs for sure, and maybe a bit less on batting average. Something more in line with Shin-soo Choo’s 2019, when he finished as the OF55—93 R, 24 HR, 61 RBI, 15 SB, .265 BA. That’s definitely the high end of Hays’ range of outcomes, but I think it’s possible if he leads off all season. Again, when we get word of how long the season might be, we’ll start adjusting stats. I’m just trying to value Hays against the full season view, since that’s what I’m used to right now.
Currently, Hays is being drafted as the 67th outfielder per recent NFBC data, with an average pick around 260. I think he’s a quality OF4 type for your fantasy baseball team...what say you all?