Ke’Bryan Hayes entered the 2021 season as a favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year award.
The Pirates called up Hayes in September 2020, and he responded by hitting .376/.442/.682 with five homers in 95 plate appearances. The offense was the best of his career, leaving hope that Hayes had arrived to lead the Pirates’ rebuild.
The 2021 season was not a rookie of the year campaign for Hayes. He dealt with multiple injuries, with a massive reduction in power, as well as a decline in his walk rate. Defensively, he was a top five guy in the majors at third base. Overall, he rated as a below-average third baseman, ranked 22 of 32 in fWAR out of players with 350+ plate appearances.
Hayes is a huge part of the Pirates’ rebuilding efforts. He’s got the defense at third base to win a Gold Glove, and enough offensive ability to be an above-average or an impact third baseman.
His power in 2021 was low, but it hasn’t exactly been high in the minors. His isolated power in Double-A and Triple-A was .151 and .150, respectively. That shot up to .306 in 2020 in the majors, and went down to .116 in 2021. You can expect more power from Hayes than we saw this year. There’s a massive valley between his upper-level minors power numbers and his 2020 major league power numbers. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to project a future .200+ isolated power. However, Hayes can get by with the .150 range.
Hayes was hitting the ball on the ground way too often in 2021. His batted ball percentage shows 56.7% of balls in play were grounders, which is a career high. His line drive rate dropped three points from 2020 in the majors, but was still in the range of his upper-level minors numbers. His fly ball rate was hit the most, registering ten percentage points lower than his worst result in the upper levels. It’s no surprise with this that his hard contact was down nine percentage points in 2021.
The easiest thing here is to hope that the hand injuries impacted the power from Hayes. With a boost to the .150 ISO range, and his current defense, Hayes would be at least an average overall third baseman.
However, the clear issue is that Hayes has been putting the ball on the ground too often, and the clear solution is finding a way to get the ball in the air. That will be a big project for new hitting coach Andy Haines.
The Pirates don’t really need to worry about prospects to replace Hayes. He’s shown the ability to be a starter in the majors, and he’s about to enter his age-25 season. It’s not hard to imagine him improving to at least be an average starter, and it’s not too difficult to imagine him being better than that. In the event that Hayes doesn’t work out, I covered the internal replacement options today at Pirates Prospects.
What will be interesting this offseason is to see if the Pirates might consider extending Hayes. That list of potential replacements in the minors is short, and the needs in the majors are long. Investing in Hayes at this point for the long-term might seem like a gamble, but with his upside at such an important position, and his lower risk floor, it’s a gamble worth taking.