In my last article, the key question was: “What have you done for me lately?” That prompted my analysis of how DJ Stewart has been on an offensive tear recently, due to his new-found ability to hit high-velocity heaters. Still, the Orioles are in a rebuild, so the focus should be far-sighted.
So, the new key question should be: “Is it better for the Orioles in the long-term to start Austin Hays or Stewart in LF?”
Looking at Hays’s whole career, his best year was definitely 2019, which was the season when he only played during September. According to Baseball Savant, he had an OPS of .947 against all pitchers, but an even higher 1.293 mark against righties. However, his OPS was only .345 against lefties. Afterwards, his splits completely reversed as his OPS was .729/.720 against lefties/righties in 2020, and are now .865/.640 in 2021. Similarly to how Austin’s performance has declined against righties over that timeframe, his run values against curveballs and four-seam fastballs have both decreased by at least four runs from 2019 to 2021. Although I am not intimately familiar with his hitting technique, I suspect that these issues could be related to him becoming more of a pull-hitter when batting for power, as opposed to hitting bombs all over the field.
My hypothesis makes sense in theory, because it is very difficult to hit fastballs far when you are unable to hit to the opposite field and let the ball travel. This is especially true when heaters are thrown at above-average velocities, which jump on right-handed hitters more quickly against right-handed pitchers. Also, pull-hitters can have issues with hitting curveballs, because it is much more probable that they would be ahead of those pitches. Often, they will hit foul balls, roll over grounders, or just whiff entirely against them, since breaking balls are the slowest pitch type. When I checked Hays’s spray charts, it became clear to me that in the past two years, he has only been able to hit for power when he pulls the ball to left field. During his one month of 2019, he had five extra base hits (XBHs) to the right half of the field. Since then, in almost four times the amount of plate appearances, he only has four opposite field XBHs.
Still, if Hays can manage to stay healthy for a long period of time and find a way to hit the ball for power to the opposite field like Trey Mancini did in 2019, then he can become an offensive force for his whole career, instead of just having that one outburst in 2019. He is already a defensive force, with nine career defensive runs saved (DRS), according to Fangraphs. In the outfield grass, there is really no way to argue that Stewart can compete with Hays, as his career DRS is negative six, which is 15 DRS lower than Hays’s.
That is why I believe that it would actually be better for the rebuild if Hays started in LF more often than Stewart. As an Orioles fan who grew up watching pitching prospects like Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, and more fail to be long-term starting pitchers for the O’s, I do not want to see that happen with our current crop of young arms when they come up from the farm. They will have a much greater chance of being successful if they pitch in front of an above average defensive outfield, which Austin Hays can certainly help create. As much as I love seeing offense and feel encouraged by Stewart’s ability to hit high-velocity pitches recently, I don’t think that he should be a regular starter at a position where he may hurt the Orioles’ young pitchers.
Unfortunately, the only situation that I foresee where Stewart should get a lot of playing time without risking the progress of O’s pitching prospects is if a trade is made for Trey Mancini, as that would allow Ryan Mountcastle to play first base full-time and open up the DH spot for DJ. Trading Mancini would be absolutely heart-breaking, because of his impact on the community and his remarkable comeback story. Nevertheless, baseball is a business and our front office is run by businessmen.
Until anything changes, Brandon Hyde will have to make the decisions while being more than a businessman. He connects emotionally with his players and knows all of them more deeply than we ever will.
If you were in his shoes, who would you start regularly in LF? Would you have a platoon set up for lefty/righty matchups?