Ke’Bryan Hayes Captured Lightning in a Bottle

Devin Williams won the NL Rookie of the Year Award with 27 innings of pitching. They were 27 historically great innings, but 27 innings all the same — 22 appearances out of the bullpen, the equivalent of five or so starts if he were placed in the rotation. You could fit all of Williams’ 2020 inside one month if you wanted to; the only reason that wasn’t considered a more serious demerit is that the actual regular season only lasted two months. This year was about accomplishing as much as possible in a very short amount of time. With that in mind, let’s talk about Ke’Bryan Hayes.

Hayes, the Pirates’ 23-year-old third baseman, finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting, trailing the three finalists as well as Dodgers right-handers Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May. You just saw a lot of Gonsolin and May, but there’s a good chance you still haven’t watched Hayes at all. He didn’t debut for the Pirates until September, after the team was already well on its way to securing the No. 1 pick with the worst record in baseball. No one sought this team out on MLB.TV, and two thirds of all teams didn’t even have Pittsburgh on its schedule. In case you haven’t updated yourself on Hayes outside of his annual prominence on top prospect lists, here’s what he did in his first game:

The very next inning, Kris Bryant decided to test out Hayes’ arm at third by charging home on a ground ball. It was a mistake:

That was how Hayes introduced himself, and it only got better from there, as he hit .376/.442/.682 in 95 plate appearances over 24 games, homering five times and walking at a near-10% clip. Over his first career month in the majors, Hayes ranked fourth among all hitters with a 195 wRC+, and the lofty 1.7 WAR he racked up in that short time led all NL rookie hitters for the season.

I don’t wish to spend this offseason going through one player after another and trying to figure out whether or not a one-month stretch of this incredibly short season has long-term implications or not. That would drive all of us insane. However, there are a few cases in which some examination is a good idea. A top prospect coming up and threatening a 200 wRC+ in his first month on the job more than qualifies for me.

Hayes has been on the radar for a long time already after the Pirates tabbed him in the first round in 2015. Using the prospect rankings here at FanGraphs, he was eighth in Pittsburgh’s system in 2016, sixth in ’17, sixth in ’18, first in ’19, and first again in ’20. In the Top 100, he broke in at 99th in 2017, then moved to No. 56, then to No. 20, then back down to No. 30. From Eric Longenhagen’s most recent writeup in February:

Hayes is perhaps still a swing change away from really breaking out, as he continued to hit the ball hard at Triple-A last year, but often into the ground. He remains a very intriguing prospect not just because the quality of the contact is good but because he’s a plus-plus third base defender with rare speed for the position. It’s possible to attribute what appear to be some plateauing traits to the previous Pirates regime’s issues with player development and perhaps what is in essence a fresh start will unlock something that’s currently lying dormant.

That hard contact translated to the big leagues immediately. Hayes hit the ball at an average of 92.8 mph in his rookie season, 19th in baseball among all players with at least 50 batted ball events and in the 94th percentile overall. His hardest recorded contact was 110.3 mph, an exit velocity better than what 60 percent of all big league hitters reached in 2020. The caution Eric issued about his ground ball rates held up as well, though not necessarily to a degree that should cause serious alarm. Here’s a chart of the average exit velocity and ground ball rates of every 2020 hitter with at least 50 plate appearances:

There’s Hayes in yellow, comfortably in the top half of all hitters in ground ball percentage, but not anywhere near some of the worst offenders. The two dots directly below him belong to Rafael Devers and Jose Abreu, the latter of whom was a serious MVP candidate this year. Hayes would benefit from more lift, as would many hitters. But this current distribution by no means places a low ceiling on what he can achieve at the plate.

That doesn’t mean Hayes’ 2020 came without warning signs. He finished the season with a .464 wOBA, the best of any rookie by more than 40 points. But his expected wOBA, according to Statcast, was .356, more than 100 points below his actual production. By this metric, no hitter in baseball got luckier this year.

That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Hayes ran a BABIP of .450 this season, second only to the Mets’ Luis Guillorme among players who batted at least 50 times. His wOBA on contact was the second-highest in baseball, even though his xwOBA on contact ranked just 52nd. He was among the best in baseball at turning ground balls into hits, and was the best at turning line drives into hits. According to Statcast, Hayes turned 19 of the 21 line drives he hit this season in base hits, for a .905 average; as a whole, the league hit just .642 on liners. Hitting a lot of line drives is good, and hitting those line drives as hard as Hayes does is good, but no one sustains this level of success for very long.

And that’s okay. Hayes, as Eric pointed out, is primed to be one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball for at least a few years, something he’s already begun to show signs of. In Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, Hayes finished the 2020 season 27th in baseball, ninth among third baseman. That’s a pretty lofty position for someone who, again, played less than half the campaign.

For the Pirates, Hayes’ breakout was the lone bright spot in an otherwise abysmal year. The rest of the team’s position players combined for -0.6 WAR, meaning they would have joined the Rangers as the only team in baseball with a below-replacement level group of hitters had they not called up their top prospect. Third base was wide open for Hayes to take over whenever the team felt he was ready, and the rest of the team’s prospect list shows very little competition coming through at the hot corner anytime soon.

As strange as it is to say after less than a month of big league experience, this team may belong to Hayes now. Josh Bell and Brian Reynolds both flamed out hard in the shortened 2020 season. Gregory Polanco looks broken. The biggest names on this team five years ago, both on the big league squad and in the farm system, all play elsewhere. Our Depth Charts have Hayes raking in 3.0 WAR in 2021, making him nearly twice as valuable as the next-best hitter on the team and the second-best player on the team overall. He’ll probably never be a 195 wRC+ hitter again, but he sure could be a lot of fun for a fanbase in desperate need of it.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Spa City
2 years ago

There is no fanbase more desperately in need of a talented, charismatic potential star player than the Pittsburgh fanbase.

After the double-whammy when the Bucs foolishly held Felipe Vasquez (nee: Rivero) at the trade deadline, and then saw him get arrested for a grotesque crime… After they traded Gerrit Cole at a low-point in his value, and months later inexplicably traded the entire farm system for broken, declining Chris Archer… After seeing their other top infield prospect involved in an “accident” that killed 3 people… After posting a .317 winning % (works out to 51 wins in a full season)… After the 21 consecutive losing seasons… It is hard to see the Pirates as a viable major league franchise.

Hayes gives yinzers hope we have a new face-of-the-franchise type player. McCutchen was that until he was traded (for Reynolds and Crick – both of whom have combined to produce fewer WAR than Cutch since the trade BTW).

The Pirates are such a hard team to support.

2 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

The latter half of the McCutchen Pirates era was such a great time to be a baseball fan in Pittsburgh. The mix of fun position players who all seemed like best friends and intense weirdos in the bullpen made for a really interesting dynamic. Plus the fact that the tickets were only 12 bucks made the stakes of going to a game leave-in-the-7th and don’t care if you miss a comeback low. I’ll probably always be a Pirates fan because of those 3-4 years but it is pretty tough to follow the team when it’s such a slog. Hopefully Hayes can stick around long enough to have a team like that, because there’s not a whole lot like leading a beloved sports team in Pittsburgh.

2 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

I do not know if it was an accident, or not. I know that Dominican politics are considerably corrupt, it isn’t unlikely to me that he simply paid off prosecutors (or had someone pay them off for X amount of money in the future). With that said, charges were dropped. He is going to be in Spring Training, and could be up in the MLB at some point this year.