August 31, 2020: a day that most baseball fans will remember as the 2020 trade deadline. The Pirates, who entered the day at 10-21, were expected to be very active at the deadline. GM Ben Cherington said that nobody was off the table, and with many more teams in playoff contention this year because of the expanded playoffs, the Pirates were in prime position to sell some pieces. I spent all afternoon watching MLB Network and refreshing Twitter, with not even a peep of a rumor about the Pirates. Then at 3:50 EST, just ten minutes before the deadline, Jason Mackey dropped a bombshell:
They didn’t trade anybody. But the promotion of Ke’Bryan Hayes was a game-changer nonetheless and has been a long time coming for Pirates fans. A third baseman like his father, former Pirate Charlie Hayes, Ke’Bryan was the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2015 and has developed into one of the best prospects in the Pirates’ system (and ranked as the 41st-best prospect in baseball entering this season by MLB.com). He had a chance to make the team out of Spring Training but a positive COVID test delayed the start to his 2020 season, resulting in him not debuting until September.
Hayes’ calling card is his defense. He has the potential to be a 5-tool Major Leaguer but his 70-grade glove has always been his best tool. Scouts have long raved about his athleticism, range, smooth hands, footwork, and strong arm as reasons why he could win multiple Gold Gloves at the hot corner (and even be fully capable of playing shortstop if need be). He has already collected some hardware in the Minors, having won Rawlings’ Minor League Gold Glove Award (this award is not given out by league or level; there is only one winner at each position across all of Minor League Baseball) at third base each year from 2017-2019.
On the offensive side, Hayes profiles as a line-drive hitter with average power potential and above-average plate discipline. His 2019 season was his first taste of Triple-A pitching and his bat seemed to take a step backward. He hit .265/.336/.415 with 10 homers, 43 walks, and 90 strikeouts last season. In general, his bat hadn’t progressed in the Minors quite as quickly as the Pirates hoped it would, and that is going to be the sole factor in determining his ceiling as a Major League player. His glove will be fine; if he can hit, he might become a star.
And boy, has he hit so far. He came out swinging in his MLB debut and hasn’t looked back. Tasked with facing Jon Lester in his first true taste of Major League pitching, he collected his first career hit off of Lester in the sixth inning:
Lester uses his cutter very effectively to induce soft contact, especially against right-handed hitters, but Hayes was able to exhibit excellent bat control and unleashed a 109-MPH missile off the left field wall. That represents just his third-hardest hit ball of the season, but he was far from finished making a name for himself in his debut. Two innings later, he hit his first MLB home run to tie the game (another ball with an exit velocity over 100 MPH), and he also used his 77th-percentile sprint speed to score from third base on a swinging bunt that was fielded by the pitcher. He had all of his tools on display in a noteworthy and highly anticipated debut:
Hayes’ debut wasn’t an anomaly – he’s been hitting the cover off the ball consistently since his promotion. His average exit velocity of 94.1 MPH would trail only Miguel Sano, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Christian Yelich if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. Sano is the only player with as many batted ball events as Hayes who hits balls 100+ MPH at a higher rate. He has, however, continued his tendency of not elevating the ball, as evidenced by his 6.4-degree launch angle and 48.9% ground ball rate.
It’s likely because of his lack of fly balls that Hayes appears to be overperforming his current slash of .323/.391/.597. It’s unreasonable to expect Hayes to continue to produce a near-1.000 OPS, at least not based on this small of a sample size. The metrics do, however, give him credit for his ability to consistently hit the ball really, really hard, as his .299 xBA, .367 xwOBA, and .498 xSLG would attest. If he can maintain a high hard-hit rate then he will have no problem sticking in the Bigs.
Any concerns that Hayes’ focus on his offense might take away from his defense can be put to rest. He has played a near-flawless third base in his 18-game sample in the Majors. Baseball Savant has him at 2 OAA with a 97% success rate thus far, and he has 4 DRS and .4 dWAR which, prorated over a full season, would be one of the greatest defensive seasons by a third baseman in MLB history. Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to immediately put him in the same category as Matt Chapman or Nolan Arenado after just three weeks in the Majors, but for someone who has been held in such high regard because of his defense, Hayes has absolutely held his own. He has looked like a seasoned veteran at the hot corner and made multiple really difficult plays look absolutely effortless:
Hayes has been a rare bright spot in what has been a pitiful 2020 season for the Pirates, who possess a league-worst 15-39 record and became the first team to be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Third base was a position where the Pirates had not seen a lot of consistency prior to Hayes’ promotion, as he, despite not making his debut until September 1, already leads the team in starts (18) at the position. It’s not far-fetched at all to say that Hayes is a significant upgrade both offensively and defensively over the production the Bucs had gotten at the position from Erik Gonzalez (11 starts), JT Riddle (10), Phillip Evans (8), Colin Moran (4), and Jose Osuna (3).
As hard as it has been to watch Pirates baseball in 2020, getting to see a potential star blossoming in Pittsburgh has been very encouraging. Seeing Ke’Bryan Hayes at third base every day is going to be a welcome sight to Pirates fans for years to come. If his performance so far is any indication of what the future might bring for this team, then maybe the next Buctober isn’t so far away after all.