AnalysisNL Central

Ke’Bryan Hayes Is Already a Star

After making his MLB debut at the end of the shortened 2020 season and then missing a large portion of 2021 with a wrist injury, Ke’Bryan Hayes has now played an entire season’s worth of MLB games, having just reached the 162 career games plateau. Despite playing in Pittsburgh, where he receives far less national attention than he would in most other markets, he has still made a name for himself as one of the best young players in the sport. His 6.2 bWAR/162 puts him in pretty solid company, as only Matt Chapman, Nolan Arenado, Jose Ramirez, and Alex Bregman have matched that pace among third basemen over the last five seasons. Even the Pirates’ front office acknowledged and rewarded Hayes’ performance, stingy as they may be, signing Hayes to a contract extension that became the largest contract in franchise history (eight years, $70 million). Let’s take a look at what Hayes has done so far and how he can be even better.

Hayes’ offensive production over his career has been solid, if unspectacular. His career slash currently sits at .281/.348/.419 (111 wRC+), and he has put up a .284/.371/.381 (119 wRC+) line thus far in 2022. He burst onto the scene in 2020, hitting .376/.442/.682 (195 wRC+) with 14 extra-base hits in 95 plate appearances. Those numbers were inflated by a streak where Hayes recorded a hit in eight consecutive at-bats and reached base in ten consecutive plate appearances. This performance earned him some Rookie of the Year votes despite only playing in 24 games. Still, nonetheless, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

Hayes appeared ready to continue his success into 2021, starting the year with a home run off of Kyle Hendricks. However, a wrist injury suffered the next day while diving into first base and magnified while attempting to swing the bat resulted in inflammation and sidelined him for over two months. When he returned to the field, he still didn’t quite seem like himself at times, and the numbers supported that. He ended the season slashing .257/.316/.373 (88 wRC+), a significant dip from his rookie campaign, leaving many wondering who the true Ke’Bryan Hayes is.

Throughout his major league career, the scouting report on Hayes has been pretty consistent – he hits the ball really, really hard but struggles to elevate the ball regularly. His average exit velocity has been above 90 MPH each season, slotting him at minimum around the top one-third of all MLB hitters. On the other hand, his launch angle is a much different story. He ranks near the bottom ten percent of MLB in that category (6.9 degrees in 2022, 4.4 for his career). Looking at these statistics further confirms the theory that his wrist injury negatively impacted him throughout the 2021 season. His 2021 average exit velocity (90.2 MPH) and launch angle (2.6 degrees) were noticeably lower than his marks for the rest of his career (92.3 MPH, 7.1 degrees).

Still, excusing 2021 as an injury-plagued mulligan, many still may be wondering what to expect from Hayes, given the variance in his offensive output in 2020 and 2022. But, looking under the hood, we may have an answer:

2020 (95 PA)
2022 (178 PA)

All in all, pretty similar across the board – he even has both the strikeout and walk rates trending in the right direction. The substantial differences in batting average (almost 100 points) and slugging percentage (nearly 300 points) can largely be attributed to small sample size (his ten-plate appearance on-base streak at the end of 2020 accounted for over ten percent of his plate appearances for the season), but he was also much luckier in 2020 than he has been this season.

According to Baseball Savant, he had a 1.3 HR-xHR in 2020, meaning that he hit 1.3 more home runs than he should have; that placed him 34th out of 480 hitters. On the other hand, he’s just outside of the top-ten unluckiest home run hitters this season with a -2.3 mark, even after finally hitting his first home run of the season on Friday. To further demonstrate this, here’s his spray chart of all balls in play so far this season, overlayed over his home ballpark:

Hayes has hit two balls that classify as “doubters” (home runs in 1-7 parks) and five that were “mostly gone” (home runs in 8-29 parks). He has one home run to show for it. Hypothetically speaking, if those three doubles that hit off the wall and those three flyouts that died at the wall had been home runs, his season slash would go from .284/.371/.381 to .303/.388/.497. Now that’s not to say we should expect all of those to be home runs in the future, but it does help to show that he is a better hitter than his surface numbers show. That .303 batting average and .497 slugging percentage fall almost perfectly in line with his expected numbers over his two (mostly) healthy seasons. As long as he continues to hit the ball hard, which he has consistently for his whole career, the results will come.

But the greatest strength of Hayes’ game is, and always has been, his defense. A 70-grade defender as a prospect and three-time Minor League Gold Glove Award winner at third base, he has certainly lived up to that reputation in the majors and has continued to play at an elite level. He has already racked up eight defensive runs saved this year, trailing only Andrew Velazquez and Nolan Arenado among all defenders at any position. Moreover, his work at the hot corner throughout his career has been on par with the best third base seasons of this era:

careerKe’Bryan Hayes1611314.228
2019Matt Chapman1561336.028
2013Manny Machado1561390.027
2018Matt Chapman1451273.223
2019Nolan Arenado1541319.223
2015Nolan Arenado1571362.022
Every 20+ DRS season by a third baseman in the last 10 seasons

Many fans are down on Hayes because of his lackluster power numbers this year, but he has already been worth 2.0 bWAR through 42 games. If he continues to play at the rate that he has been (he’s being given scheduled off days because of a lingering lower-back injury), that puts him on track to play in 147 games this year. 2.0 bWAR in 42 games prorates to exactly 7.0 bWAR in 147 games. That should immediately put him in the discussion to be recognized as one of MLB’s best third basemen (a stacked and top-heavy position). Hayes also has a team-friendly contract that was very wisely front-loaded so that he will be making only $7 million per season when the Pirates’ contention window (hopefully) opens in 2024. If Hayes hits like the metrics expect him to, combined with elite defense and an exceedingly affordable contract, he will undoubtedly be among baseball’s most valuable players. Ke’Bryan Hayes is already a star, and he might be just getting started.

All stats are up-to-date as of the end of play on Sunday, May 29

Ethan Fisher

Jesus paid it all. Forever hoping Bob Nutting will just pay anyone. Ke'Bryan Hayes is the best 3B in the NL Central. Always talking Pirates/baseball in general on Twitter @efisher330

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