Ke'Bryan Hayes looked at the defensive positioning card in his pocket Thursday afternoon, noted that the Cubs' David Bote and Cameron Maybin had been pulling a lot of balls foul and kept in mind that right-hander Chad Kuhl’s sinker had already forced a handful of hitters to roll over ground balls. So, the 23-year-old third baseman took a few extra steps to his right as the top of the sixth inning began.
Sure enough, Kuhl fired a first-pitch sinker and Bote pulled a hard chopper down the third-base line. In one smooth motion, Hayes quickly got in front of the ball, fielded it and, with his right foot planted in foul territory, whipped a shoulder-high throw across the infield to first baseman Josh Bell to record the out and preserve Kuhl’s no-hit bid for one more out.
For a lot of players, that would be a notable highlight. For Hayes, it almost seems routine. He’s a gifted defender and he’s well-positioned by the Pirates’ coaching and analytics staffs, sure. But what stands out near the end of the rookie’s first month in the Majors is his natural feel for the game.
“You get some of these guys in Cleveland, you get [Javier] Báez, you get [Anthony] Rizzo and you get [Francisco] Lindor -- these guys, their internal game clock works differently. Ke’Bryan has that,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “His game clock works differently. How he goes about what he’s doing on the field is special. It’s not something you can teach. It’s something he has. When you watch him do something that maybe looks pedestrian that’s really hard, it stands out.”
Hayes entered the Pirates’ final series of the season hitting .329/.395/.603 with four homers, two triples and four doubles in 81 plate appearances. He leads the team in wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. By FanGraphs’ calculation of WAR, the only National League third basemen who have been more valuable than Hayes this season are the Padres’ Manny Machado and the Reds’ Eugenio Suárez.
Since making his debut on Sept. 1, the Pirates’ No. 2 prospect has somehow managed to exceed expectations.
“He’s been as advertised and more. He’s a guy that has been a vacuum at third base. He’s been dominant in the box,” starter Trevor Williams said recently. “He’s putting together really good ABs. I’m thankful that he’s on my team and I don’t have to try to get him out, because he’s been doing fantastic. I think he’s been really itching for this opportunity, and I think he knew that this year was going to be his year to capitalize on that opportunity. He’s going to be fun to watch at PNC Park for years to come.”
Has Hayes even managed to surprise himself? Not really, he said.
“The work you put in, whenever you have success with it, it doesn’t so much surprise you. Whenever we go out there, we expect to do really well,” Hayes said. “But the success that I’ve had, I’ve been really grateful for it.”
Hayes said he has mostly tried to watch and learn over the last month. He observes established players’ routines, studies how pitchers attack him and tries to get a feel for opponents’ tendencies. But playing baseball at this level, Hayes said, feels normal.
Hayes’ hot start and his reputation as the Pirates’ third baseman of the future will surely make him one of the focal points as Pittsburgh attempts to build a winning team over the next few years. He’s bound to be burdened with high hopes and greater expectations heading into next season, when he’ll surely be lined up at third base on Opening Day, but he seems unbothered by it.
“There’s no pressure on me. I use it as motivation,” Hayes said. “The success that I've had makes me even hungrier to get back home after the season ends and get even better. There are things I still can work on offensively, defensively, running -- all those things.”
Castro, a first-time addition to the taxi squad, spent all summer working out at the Pirates’ alternate training site in Altoona, Pa. The versatile 21-year-old, the club’s No. 27 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, hit .242/.306/.516 with 14 homers in 61 games for Class A Greensboro last year and finished the season with Class A Advanced Bradenton.