The Pirates Found a Player They Can Build Around in Ke’Bryan Hayes

For someone who thought that Ke’Bryan Hayes would be more than just a strong defensive third baseman, and who thought that his hitting tools would eventually click on the field, it’s hard to not buy into the hype that Hayes created during the 2020 season.

After contracting COVID-19 prior to the shortened season, Hayes went to the Pirates’ alternate training site in Altoona. By the start of September, he was ready for the majors, and the Pirates gave him the call. What happened next was one of the best rookie performances in recent Pirates history.

Hayes hit for a .376/.442/.682 line with five homers in 95 plate appearances. It’s difficult to judge that against other rookies, since this was already a shortened season, and Hayes only playing half of that gives him considerably fewer plate appearances than previous rookies. For example, Andrew McCutchen came up in early June 2009, missing the first two months of the year, but still managed almost 500 plate appearances that season.

Hayes only had 95 plate appearances. The league didn’t get a chance to adjust against him. As a result, he finished pretty high among Pirates rookie hitters.

Going back to 1991, just to give us a nice 30 season time frame, let’s see how Hayes stacks up:

His .376 average is the best among any rookie hitter for the Pirates during this span. Phillip Evans is right below him with a .359 average over 45 plate appearances this year. Bryan Reynolds leads the way among the qualified leaders, with a .314 average over 546 plate appearances in 2019.

The .442 OBP from Hayes falls just under the .444 from Evans this year, although that’s an even smaller sample size. Craig Wilson had a .390 OBP as a rookie in 2001 over 183 plate appearances. The qualified leader again here is Bryan Reynolds at .377 in 2019.

Hayes leads the way in slugging with a .682 mark. Craig Wilson is the next best from 2001 at .589. Garrett Jones is just behind him with a .567 from 2009 over 358 plate appearances. Jason Bay is the qualified leader here, with a .543 SLG over 569 plate appearances in 2003-04.

Bay is an interesting case. He was a rookie in 2003 and had a .287/.421/.529 line in 107 plate appearances. He returned the following season with a .282/.358/.550 line over 472 plate appearances, showing improvements with his power, while still maintaining strong numbers hitting and getting on base.

Hayes also finished first in wOBA and wRC+, with the usual suspects of Wilson, Bay, and Reynolds trailing him, and Evans being in the mix with his own small sample size.

The fact that the Pirates got surprise production at third base from both Hayes and Evans this year is astounding. The future of the position will belong to Hayes, as this production isn’t massively removed from his expectations, and we still don’t know what to expect from Evans.

The Pirates could use Evans as a super utility guy, capable of backing up Hayes at third base, playing the outfield, and covering first base as well. His performance in a small sample size warranted at least a look on the bench during the 2021 season.

Erik Gonzalez spent some time at third base this year, but his future looks to be at shortstop, and only at third base as a backup.

Colin Moran made four starts with 35 innings at third base. He spent much more time at first base this year, and likely won’t factor into the third base role moving forward.

That leaves Hayes and his monster rookie numbers as the third baseman of the future. The question is whether he can maintain anything close to this level of production.

The average is fueled by a .450 BABIP. In his best years, Hayes posted BABIP in the .330-.345 range. He was around .310 during his worst years in the minors. We can expect the average to drop, just from the drop in BABIP. However, Hayes should still be a .280-.300 hitter, possibly going .300 or higher in most years.

The OBP will drop with the drop in average, but should remain fairly high due to walks. Hayes had a 9.5% walk rate, which is in line with his minor league career. He’s actually posted double-digit rates in most years in the minors, so it’s possible the OBP goes up from more walks, reducing the impact of the average. Hayes was at .442 OBP this year, and the best mark of his career is .375 in 2018 in Double-A. I could see him being in the .400 range in his best years, and that .375 range in most years.

The power was the big standout from Hayes. He made some adjustments to his swing this year, opening his stance, moving his hands higher and away from his shoulders, and generated more power in the process. His .682 slugging percentage trounces the previous high of .444 in Double-A in 2018. His .306 ISO also beats the .151 mark from that season, and the .150 mark from Triple-A last year.

I think Hayes can improve over the previous power numbers. I don’t think that doubling the old numbers is the type of improvement we can expect to continue. Best case, we could hope for a slugging around .500 and an ISO closer to .200.

.280-.300 average.

.375 OBP

.480 SLG

That type of production in most years, plus the defense at third base, would make Hayes one of the better third basemen in the league, putting him in a class below guys like Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon.

That’s the type of player the Pirates can build around.