Orioles was presented with a choice between the two defensive plays he made on Thursday night—a fourth inning throw to the plate to avoid a run and his rally-killing dive across the rightfield line in the eighth—Orioles rightfielder Austin Hays made his decision based on on sound logic.
“I’d probably say the throw because the dive hurt a lot worse,” Hays said with a smile. “It was absolutely worth it, because I got it. But I would love to never have to dive the warning lane again.”
But as an observer, midfielder Cedric Mullins went the other way.
“The throw was pretty easy for him,” Mullins said. “That [dive] certainly crushed some spirits there.”
The dissent is perhaps one of the few ways Hays and Mullins are out of sync when it comes to outfield defense. The pair have played together as minor leaguers since 2017 and have developed an innate ability to communicate with each other before and during play.
On Thursday, along with Hays’ highlights, Mullins moved into right-midfield for a handful of impressive catches, with Hays finishing close as well. Add to that a well-tracked flyout from Anthony Santander, and the result is what manager Brandon Hyde said: “perhaps the best defensive play from an outfield group I’ve seen in the major leagues.”
“They’re two Gold Glovers,” Hyde said. “You see them do a lot of non-verbal” [communication] as they run to the ball. They know each other so well now. When you play next to a guy you know their mannerisms, you know what balls they can get and what not, where they play, so there’s some consolation.”
Mullins said with a wave of his hand that he can let Hays know what areas he’s covered based on positioning. Both noted that if a ball is thrown between them and one can catch it with a dive, it usually means the other can reach it standing up. That cue helps them avoid collisions, with one going up to make the catch, while the other diving deeper into the outfield as a backup.
“It’s really great peace of mind for an outfielder to know that the other guy will always be there,” Hays said. “I think we’ve built a lot of trust with each other.”
Hays said that trust is a byproduct of years of playing games side-by-side, with those instincts becoming second nature “once those games happen over and over again.”
That total time together means they’ve watched the other blossom into standout defenders in their own way. Hays praised Mullins’ jumps, routes and speed. According to Baseball Savant, Mullins is in the 72nd percentile in the majors in outfield jump, 84th percentile in sprint speed and 91st percentile in outs above average.
“He’s as good as they come for center fielders,” Hays said.
His favorite game from Mullins came last year, when the All-Star slid into the right-midfield warning lane at Camden Yards to rob Nelson Cruz of extra bases. With experience in Baltimore’s midfield, Hays knows the challenge of that game.
“That’s one of the hardest moves for a center fielder, when you’re running wide open,” he said. “That hole gets small there before it radiates out to where it is 373 [feet]† I think that’s probably the most impressive I’ve seen him make. He robbed Gary [Sánchez of a home run] last year, but I still think the one he slid against the wall on track, that’s just such a hard game.”
Mullins said choosing one of Hays’ best plays is a difficult task because “the list just keeps piling up.” He chose the highlight that impressed him most: after Mullins lunged for a ball that bounced off the new left field wall at Camden Yards, Hays chased it and threw Jesse Winker out to third base when the outfielder of Seattle Mariners tried to extend the hit to a triple.
It’s one of Hays’ six outfield assists, which came in Friday as the second most in the American League and highlighted the arm that most impressed Mullins over Hays’ defensive acumen. Since 2016, Hays has been responsible for the Orioles’ five hardest thrown outfield assists, with the top three coming this year.
“He came after me, picked it up, knocked it out in third place while I was just on my knees watching because in that moment I was like, ‘It’s all you, man,’” Mullins said.
Hays’ favorite among Mullins’ plays came on June 1, 2021. Mullins’ favorite among Hays’ highlights was June 2, 2022. It’s just another example of them in lockstep, teaming up to secure outs for the Orioles pitching staff.
“We’re just very confident in the knowledge that everything is going to get caught,” Hays said. “If there’s something I think is out of my reach, he’ll take it.”