Ke’Bryan Hayes Gets a Record Extension from the Pirates

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Judging by their 69-win projection and negligible odds of winning the World Series, the Pirates don’t have a great deal to look forward to from a competitive standpoint in 2022. But Opening Day is a time for celebration and optimism nonetheless, and early on Thursday afternoon, FanSided’s Robert Murray reported that the team had agreed to an eight-year, $70-million extension with third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, the largest contract in Pirates history.

The contract for the 25-year-old Hayes is also a record for a player with between one and two years of service time. It covers his final two pre-arbitration years, his three years of arbitration-eligibility, and the first three years of his free agent eligibility, through his age-32 season. The exact details have not been reported at this writing, including the value of his club option for the ninth year (2030).

The celebration was almost immediately dampened when Hayes left the Pirates’ opener against the Cardinals in the bottom of the first inning due to an apparent injury to his left wrist. He dove trying to catch a bloop into left field by Dylan Carlson, but the ball fell and turned into a double. After Tyler O’Neill singled Carlson home two batters later, Pirates head athletic trainer Rafael Freitas and manager Derek Shelton came out of the dugout to check on Hayes, unwrapping his left wrist and taking him out of the game.

The sudden departure was a reminder that Hayes spent two months on the injured list last summer for left wrist inflammation and then was shut down during the final week of the season with soreness in the same wrist. Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey, he said that pain stemmed from rolling over his hands at the end of his swing, something that he worked on correcting over the winter. Before a preliminary diagnosis of Hayes’ current injury had been reported to the public, Murray noted via Twitter that his contract had not been signed yet, as it was still pending a physical.

Gulp. If the injury were serious, the Pirates wouldn’t dare… would they?

Murray later reported that fortunately, Hayes was just experiencing “cramping in his left thumb/forearm… ‘very minor’,” according a source, and the team later described the problem as a spasm in his left forearm. Mackey reported that after the Pirates’ 9-0 loss to the Cardinals, Hayes expressed hope that he would be ready for the team’s next game on Saturday. Whew.

With that extra layer of drama out of the way, we can consider the extension for the team’s 2015 first-round pick out of a Texas high school, and the son of former major leaguer Charlie Hayes. Called up for the first time in September 2020 after three years of frequenting prospect lists, Hayes hit a blazing .376/.442/.682 (195 wRC+) with five homers in 95 plate appearances, a performance that generated 1.6 WAR in just 24 games and garnered him enough support in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting to finish sixth — yet retain his rookie eligibility into 2021.

Hayes entered the season seventh on our Top 100 Prospects list, but as Eric Longenhagen predicted — not that he was going out on a limb, really — he couldn’t maintain the .450 BABIP or .464 wOBA that drove his 2020 performance. Indeed, he had a subpar season with the bat, hitting .257/.316/.373 (88 wRC+) with six homers in 396 PA. He played in just 96 games due to the left wrist woes and a self-inflicted bone bruise on his right hand caused when he slammed his helmet in frustration. None of that helped his offense.

Hayes still hit the ball hard, with a 90.2 mph average exit velocity (71st percentile), 111 mph maximum exit velocity (78th percentile) and a 45.8% hard-hit rate (75th percentile), but he didn’t elevate the ball with consistency. He had a 56.7% groundball rate (nine points higher than his 2020 stint), a 2.24 groundball-to-fly ball ratio (up from 1.55), and just a 5.1% barrel rate (20th percentile). His .299 xwOBA placed him in just the 16th percentile.

All of that is cause for some concern, but thankfully, it was backed-stopped by Hayes’ outstanding defense. Despite playing in just 766.1 innings, he led all third basemen with 16 DRS, placed second with 13 OAA, and tied for fourth with 6.0 UZR. He beat out Gold Glove winners Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman to win the Fielding Bible Award for third basemen, and finished with 1.5 fWAR and 2.4 bWAR, marking him as a solidly above-average player, something in painfully short supply on the 2021 Pirates.

The Bucs, who went 61-101 last year, have just one season of .500 or better ball in the past six, and as noted above, this doesn’t look like their year to turn the corner. General manager Ben Cherington wasn’t allowed to break the bank this winter, and in fact the Pirates have the majors’ lowest payroll at an estimated $45 million, a figure that includes estimates for six arbitration-eligible players whose actual salaries have not yet been determined. Notably absent from their Opening Day roster is 23-year-old shortstop Oneil Cruz, who placed eighth on this year’s Top 100 Prospects list. He had a two-game cup of coffee last year and is coming off a strong spring, There’s little question that he’s one of the team’s best 26 players, but he’s starting the year in Triple-A in order to gain experience in left field while Kevin Newman, the owner of a 54 wRC+ for each of the past two seasons, started for the big club at shortstop and remains the projected regular. Make of that rationale what you will.

That $45 million payroll includes seven free agents signed by Cherington, all to one-year deals of $5 million or less, with all but those of Roberto Pérez and Yoshi Tsutsugo coming in at $2.13 million or less. Cherington traded catcher Jacob Stallings, who ranked third among the team’s position players in WAR (2.6) to the Marlins in late November; he had traded Adam Frazier, who ranked second in WAR (3.0), to the Padres on July 26, and spent a good amount of the past nine months fielding inquiries from the Padres, Marlins and at least six other teams regarding center fielder Bryan Reynolds, the team leader in WAR (5.5) and a player who turned down extension overtures last year.

Particularly with the Pirates’ pitching rather threadbare, that left Hayes, the team’s fourth-most valuable position player last year, as a potential target for an extension that can become part of the foundation for a more competitive team and its commitment to a brighter future. The Pirates have been talking to Hayes about an extension since the spring of 2020, and they finally got to a deal that both sides could live with. Remarkably, the contract that Hayes’ deal is surpassing is the six-year, $60 million extension that Jason Kendall received in 2000 (“Isn’t that crazy? It’s upsetting, too. There needs to be some change,” Kendall told The Athletic’s Rob Biertempfel two years ago when reminded of his contract’s status in franchise history).

More recently, Andrew McCutchen’s contract wound up surpassing Kendall’s in total value, but only after the Pirates picked up the $14.75 million option for 2018 at the end of his six-year, $51.5 million deal. That one panned out well, as McCutchen won an MVP award, had two other top three finishes in the voting, made four All-Star teams, and helped the club to its only three postseason appearances since the Jim Leyland/Barry Bonds era. Starling Marte didn’t reach the heights that McCutchen did, but his six-year, $31 million deal — expanded to cover eight years at $52 million when its two options were picked up — paid off very well in terms of value and even delivered the team’s current number four prospect, shortstop Liover Peguero, when Marte was traded to the Diamondbacks in January 2020. Gregory Polanco was released last summer before even completing his five-year, $35 million extension, but the dollars involved only stand out because of the team’s pitiful spending. His -1.2 WAR before being cut loose last year didn’t help the Pirates, but the real problem wasn’t his $11 million salary, it was a $47 million payroll.

All of which is to say that for it to have taken as long as it did for the Pirates to surpass Kendall’s contract is a pretty serious indictment of the organization on multiple levels. The Hayes extension might be large relative to the franchise’s history, but this is hardly a risk on the level of the Padres via Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-years, $340-million extension, the record for a player with two years of service time. Here’s Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection for the life of Hayes’ deal:

ZiPS Projection – Ke’Bryan Hayes
2022 .254 .319 .400 425 56 108 26 3 10 46 39 9 94 10 2.5
2023 .252 .319 .403 412 55 104 26 3 10 46 40 8 94 10 2.4
2024 .249 .318 .407 413 56 103 26 3 11 47 41 8 95 10 2.5
2025 .247 .317 .411 392 53 97 25 3 11 45 39 7 95 9 2.3
2026 .248 .318 .417 379 51 94 25 3 11 43 38 6 97 8 2.2
2027 .249 .318 .408 373 50 93 23 3 10 42 37 6 95 7 2.1
2028 .246 .315 .394 345 45 85 21 3 8 37 34 6 91 6 1.7
2029 .244 .313 .384 315 40 77 19 2 7 33 31 4 88 5 1.3
2030 .239 .304 .371 280 34 67 15 2 6 28 25 3 82 4 0.8

That’s 21.9 WAR over the eight guaranteed years of the contract, through his age-32 season, even if Hayes never develops into a consistently league-average offensive player. That level of production is comparatively modest but in the same ballpark as Marte’s guaranteed years (19.5 WAR from 2014-19), and still worth $138 million in free agent salaries via the ZiPS model, which uses estimates of $7 million per win and 3.5% inflation. (Here I’ll note that for my February piece on a potential Juan Soto extension, Dan used an estimate of 2% inflation, but he has since revised that rate “given the longer-term inflation estimates generally in the economy” while noting, “Contracts from this offseason suggest at least an uptick in salary growth.”) Including the extension, the ZiPS valuation of the contract comes to nine years and $146 million. Based on the salary discounts that are typical for arbitration eligible players — which in Hayes case, range from 21% in the first year to 62% in the third — ZiPS suggests contracts of eight years and $78 million or nine years and $86 million.

Hayes’ deal undershoots the ZiPS valuation of the guaranteed portion by about 10%, which isn’t great for his purposes but lowers the stakes for the notoriously risk-averse Pirates. If his bat develops — and we shouldn’t rule that out given the raw power and the still-recent prospect grades (55 present value and 60 future value on the hit tool) — this would be an even bigger bargain for Pittsburgh, but it would also increase the chances of Hayes being a good enough player to merit another guaranteed deal in his 30s. If his bat doesn’t develop, or if he continues to deal with injuries (he missed the second half of 2016 with a back injury and played in only 82% of his teams’ games from ’17-19), he’s still got some security.

There’s risk involved in any long-term deal; the key is whether that risk is distributed fairly. Hayes, as a player five years away from free agency and two years away from arbitration eligibility, did not have a tremendous amount of leverage here, and may well have been better served by going year to year, particularly in an organization that hasn’t consistently demonstrated a commitment to winning, to say the least. But if he and the Pirates wanted to make a positive statement about the team’s future, including the coming wave of prospects such as Cruz, catcher Henry Davis (no. 22) and righty starter Roansy Contreras (no. 41), this is a good start.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Matan Kronfeldmember
1 year ago

Why is the figure of $7m per WAR used? Is that figure generally used when evaluating extensions instead of the $9m+ per WAR in Free Agency?

Last edited 1 year ago by Matan Kronfeld
1 year ago
Reply to  Matan Kronfeld

Why is ANY linear figure of $/WAR used when the value of WAR is most assuredly not linear, and is also age based and probability based?

Dan Szymborskimember
1 year ago
Reply to  tomerafan

It *should* be, and if you look at only the last few years, it largely is, but from a data standpoint, it’s still kind of uncertain.

1 year ago
Reply to  Dan Szymborski

But no one is paying $7m for a 1-WAR player in free agency. Dan Vogelbach is a pretty good estimate of a 1-win guy and he got $1m for 1 year.

Halladay In Cambodiamember
1 year ago
Reply to  dl80

I always think of this as a ‘buy in bulk’ factor. A front office may see less prudent value in $7m for 1 WAR, vs $21m for 3 WAR.

1 year ago
Reply to  dl80

The real issue with the “is WAR nonlinear” question is that the sample sizes in a single offseason are much too small to really draw any conclusions about subsamples. So if we wanted to compare bigger free agents to lesser ones, we’re dealing with a pretty small number in a single offseason.

Overall, it’s important to remember that the only “rule” is that there are win totals a team hopes to achieve, and there is supply that might help them get there, and the extent to which shortages and team needs intersect determines $ per expected WAR. Everyone always needs pitching; not everyone needs a DH who ideally is platooned. I suspect that the issue of nonlinearity is really an issue of demand, based on willingness to give out big contracts vs. make big upgrades, supply and demand at certain positions, etc.

Antonio Bananas
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

What about building a multiple regression equation with position on the win curve, average payroll the last 3 years, player age, and player position? Or whatever your hypothesis is of the biggest driving variables?

1 year ago
Reply to  dl80

Calling Dan Vogelbach 1-win seems like a pretty optimistic projection. I would call him a replacement player.

Last edited 1 year ago by Hughes
1 year ago
Reply to  Hughes

He’s projected between 0.4 and 1.2 in half to 2/3 of a season.