Numbers? Expectations? Hayes unfazed by it

February 23rd, 2021

Ke’Bryan Hayes’ name has become a constant in conversations about the Pirates, even at the national level. He’s seen as a face of the foundation the club is laying as it works to build a sustainable playoff contender.

But on Tuesday, Hayes provided a humbling reminder of just how early he is in his career. Todd Frazier, an MLB veteran but a new Pirate, was given the empty locker next to Hayes at one end of the clubhouse, so the young third baseman introduced himself. How did that conversation go?

“It was kind of like, ‘Hello, nice to meet you,’” Hayes said. “Just kind of telling him, ‘I’ve been watching you since I was a little kid.’”

A little kid? Frazier has been in the league for 10 years … so did that make him feel old?

“Nah. He kinda laughed it off,” Hayes said. “Hopefully, he didn’t take it like that.”

The Pirates are a young team, and at 24, Hayes is no exception. He finished sixth in the National League Rookie of the Year Award voting last season, and he’ll be eligible for the award again in 2021. He hasn’t graduated from his status of “prospect,” given the No. 9 overall ranking on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list.

But Hayes has already begun to play like he’s been in the league for five years. His combination of high hard-hit rate (55.4%) and low whiff rate (18.1%) last season puts him in the same category as stars like Mike Trout and Freddie Freeman. Hayes won three Gold Glove Awards in the Minor Leagues, and his early returns pointed to success in that department. He ranked fourth in outs above average (3) among third basemen while playing at least 150 innings fewer than the three players who recorded more.

Funny enough, while Hayes’ early Statcast returns are eye-opening, he is by no means an analytics darling. He said he was introduced to hard-hit rate in Triple-A, but he doesn’t look at the leaderboards: “You know when you square up a ball, when it’s smoked.”

If you ask manager Derek Shelton, it’s not necessarily an old-school mentality that Hayes possesses, but it’s one that is somewhat at the heart of the definition of a “ballplayer.”

“When you have guys that have the feel or the internal clock that he has, he knows,” Shelton said. “He doesn’t need something else to tell him that, and that’s fine.”

Hayes’ goals for the 2021 season are similar to the ones he had last year. He admitted “everyone wants to hit .300,” but his focus is not on the numbers, but rather the intention and purpose behind his work. With numbers-based goals comes pressure to reach those numbers, and he believes it “can eat you up” if you let it.

As with any rookie off to a hot start, there is an inevitable league adjustment, and that’s to be expected from pitchers facing Hayes in the new season. As far as we know, there aren’t too many holes to exploit. The only offering he struggled against was the curveball, which was the putaway pitch on five of his 20 strikeouts.

In fact, opposing pitchers tried to adjust to him after his first couple of weeks in the Majors. It clearly didn’t work. In two of his last three games -- on Sept. 26-27 -- Hayes recorded hits in seven straight at-bats in Cleveland. In those at-bats, the only pitches he swung at resulted in hits. None of them were pulled.

“And why that’s important is he never tried to do too much,” Shelton said, “and when you have that kind of mindset and you’re doing that, I think it kind of speaks to how he’s able to be calm a lot.”

When it comes to the “cat-and-mouse” game of adjustments next season, as Hayes put it, the Pirates are confident in his ability. Shelton said they will emphasize monitoring his hitting zones to make sure that he isn’t pressing, but he’s given them no reason to worry.

“I don’t think he’ll change,” Shelton said. “I think he’ll probably play 15 years in the big leagues and never change. That’s who he is.”

While the Pirates have looked at the future potential of Hayes and signaled that he’s a clear part of where they’re headed, they’re not looking to put any added pressure on him to become an All-Star or a face of the franchise. There’s a respect for what he’s been able to accomplish thus far as a student of the game, and they expect the same steady heartbeat and demeanor he’s consistently shown.

“I think more of it is going to be played up through the media and expectations that way than it is for him,” Shelton said. “He’s going to be the same kid who comes to the park.”