Ke’Bryan Hayes may be the most talented defensive third baseman in baseball— Nolan Arenado would like a word— who makes improbable plays a probability and routine ground balls a breeze.
The baseball world knows Hayes can pick it like no other and has Gold-Glove potential for years to come, with little question on if he can man the hot corner on a daily basis for a contending team.
Lost in the shuffle of a highly productive season defensively is a lackluster year with the bat despite hitting in the top of the order for the majority of 2021.
After 24 games in 2020, placing sixth in Rookie-of-the-Year voting, Hayes’s first full season for the Pittsburgh Pirates was interrupted by an early-April wrist injury, holding him out a full two months from April 3 to his return on June 3.
The 24-year-old has recorded 14 doubles, 5 home runs, and 27 RBI over 254 at-bats, walking 25 times contrasted with 66 strikeouts. Slashing .248/.317/.370 in 69 games, Hayes had experienced trouble putting together consistent at-bats and driving the ball, registering a .687 OPS and 86 OPS+.
A lack of clutch offensive outcomes isn’t rare for a team second-worst in the National League, but batting in the upper portion of the lineup should result in higher production for Hayes’ talent.
Going deeper into his season at the plate, Hayes’ walk and strikeout rates are virtually even with league average, with contrasting home-run percentages as the long ball continues to out-duel small ball.
Hayes’s hard-hit percentage is greatly above average, checking in at 46.8% compared to a league-standard 38.6%. His average exit velocity is also above average, leading to ball placement as a likely factor of limited execution.
The key factor in determining Hayes’ issues this season is examining line drives and ground balls, struggling in each category. A 19.6% line-drive rate (25.2% average) and whopping 58.2% ground-ball percentage (42.9% average) stand out most in why Hayes has slumped after a fantastic debut in 2020.
The line-drive percentage is a little confusing due to the hard-hit rate, but can be partly explained by the extreme ground-ball rate, failing to reach gaps, outfield corners, and the ability to take an extra base. If he can loft the ball more frequently and reliably, his offensive production should see an uptick. Improbable to mirror his smooth defense, Hayes can still become a productive middle-of-the-order bat with 5-tool abilities.
Hayes has run into bad luck at times, hitting the ball right at players and failing to produce seeing-eye singles, hitting the ball strictly up-the-middle 61.9% of the time.
Talking to Joe Block on his weekly Sunday radio show on Sports Radio 93.7 The Fan, General Manager Ben Cherington stressed that they still believe Hayes will produce offensively after running into some trouble with the bat this season.
Ben Cherington on @937theFan talking about Ke'Bryan Hayes: "We believe he’s going to be a good hitter in the major leagues. He’s had to grind a little bit this year."— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) August 22, 2021
Hayes was a decent contributor in the Minor Leagues, but the glove continued to steal the show, flashing the leather en route to three-straight Gold Gloves from 2017-2019 advancing from Bradenton to Indianapolis, winning at each step up the ladder.
It hasn’t hurt Bryan Reynolds, but a lack of protection around Hayes other than the All-Star center fielder could be a factor. Baserunners have been few and far between for extended parts of the team’s past few losing streaks and spanning large chunks of the season.
Time is on Hayes’s side to become a complete hitter after battling an injury and shortened 2020 season.
The lack of pop in his bat leading to few home runs and RBI is slightly concerning, but for a team last in home runs and OPS throughout the majors, it displays a sign of the times for the franchise offensively.
A strong final month would be encouraging for Hayes after two RBIs Saturday against the Cardinals, leading to an improved 2022 with adjustments for hitting gap-to-gap and fewer ground balls.