This youngster could be MLB's next star 3B

December 12th, 2020

Third base is one of the most talented positions in the Majors these days. From Nolan Arenado to Matt Chapman to Anthony Rendon to Manny Machado to Alex Bregman and others, the hot corner is packed with potential MVP Award candidates. Now there’s a prospect who is poised to join that group.

You might have missed Ke’Bryan Hayes’ 24-game Major League introduction in 2020, but it’s worth catching up on how spectacular it was. The 23-year-old is currently the Pirates’ No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline, the No. 37 overall prospect and the No. 2 prospect at third base. He also has baseball in his blood, as the son of Charlie Hayes, an infielder who played for seven teams over the course of a 14-year career, including winning the 1996 World Series with the Yankees.

Hayes made the most of 95 plate appearances this past September, hitting .376 with a 1.124 OPS and five homers. He amassed 1.8 WAR, per Baseball-Reference. That's the most among all rookies on the season, and WAR is a counting stat. The only qualified hitter with a higher batting average than Hayes in September was Atlanta's Marcell Ozuna (.394), who made a late run at the National League Triple Crown. Hayes ranked fifth among qualified hitters in slugging percentage and fourth in wRC+ for the month.

Now, 95 plate appearances are not enough to crown Hayes an MVP-caliber player yet, but it’s worth examining what he did -- and how he did it -- in looking ahead to 2021.

He hit the ball hard -- and often
The most eye-popping part of Hayes’ season, beyond the basic stats, was how much he crushed the ball. He had a 55.4% hard-hit rate. That means that more than half of his 65 batted balls had an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher.

The MLB average was 37.6%, and only six players had at least 100 batted balls and a hard-hit rate at least as high as Hayes: Fernando Tatis Jr., Travis d’Arnaud, Ronald Acuña Jr., Corey Seager, Eloy Jiménez and Christian Yelich.

But Hayes didn’t just hit the ball hard, he also did it without swinging and missing much. He had just an 18.1% whiff rate on swings, well below the MLB average of 26.8% -- a mark that is particularly impressive given that this was Hayes’ introduction to MLB pitching. Only 19 batters took at least 300 swings and had a whiff rate lower than that.

How rare is Hayes’ hard-hitting, low-whiffing combination? No qualified hitter in 2020 had a hard-hit rate that high coupled with a whiff rate that low. The lowest whiff rate for any qualified hitter with at least a 50% hard-hit rate was 19.5%, by Angels superstar Mike Trout, who is in the midst of a Hall of Fame-caliber career. Trout’s 55.1% hard-hit rate was also the highest by anyone on that list with a sub-20% whiff rate. The only other player who came close was the Braves' Freddie Freeman, who had a 54.2% hard-hit rate and 20.1% whiff rate on the way to being named NL MVP.

Another way to look at Hayes' hitting the ball hard and not missing much: his rate of hard-hit balls per swing. His 21.1% rate was tied for ninth among players with at least 50 batted balls, just ahead of the Dodgers' Mookie Betts.

Again, Hayes has only done this in a small sample at the MLB level. But hitting the ball hard while not swinging and missing much is a recipe for future success, as the MLB-wide batting average and slugging percentage on hard-hit balls were .510 and 1.064, respectively.

Managing great expectations
The effects of that quality and quantity of contact are reflected in Hayes’ expected stats, which are based on launch angle and exit velocity, plus strikeouts. His .300 expected batted average and .497 expected slugging percentage weren’t in the otherworldly zone of his actual numbers (.376/.682), but they were more than respectable.

Consider this: Only 11 hitters who qualified for the batting title in 2020 had an xBA that high. Those names included Ozuna, Freeman, José Abreu, Trea Turner, Machado, Bryce Harper, Seager, DJ LeMahieu, Dominic Smith, Juan Soto and Jake Cronenworth.

It is worth noting that these stats highlight the fact that Hayes was overperforming a bit, too. He had a 101-point difference between his actual weighted on-base average and expected mark, the largest such difference of any player with at least 50 plate appearances. Hayes also had a .450 batting average on balls in play, the highest of any player with at least 70 plate appearances.

Both of those indicate that his actual stats involved an element of luck, which should be considered when setting expectations. But the fact that his expected stats were still good is encouraging.

And don’t forget the defense
Even if Hayes’ bat takes a step back in 2021, his glove will still be there. Part of what has made him such a well-regarded prospect is his defense, which is currently graded at 65 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale, according to MLB Pipeline. Hayes' most recent prospect profile frames him as a player with excellent defense, needing his bat to catch up to his glove, noting, “There's no doubt Hayes is ready to play the hot corner defensively at the highest level.”

Hayes’ name frequently comes up among the best defensive prospects at any position, according to MLB Pipeline. Through the 2019 Minor League season, he was considered the best third baseman at any level.

Per MLB Pipeline, Hayes "has tremendous range, great footwork, plus hands and a plus arm to make him the complete package,” and that showed up in a big way at the MLB level, at least in a small sample. In 198 1/3 innings at the hot corner, Hayes racked up three outs above average. Only three third basemen had more: Arenado, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Brian Anderson, each of whom played at least 350 innings at third in 2020.

What did that sparkling defense look like? Everything from classic barehanded plays to an over-the-shoulder catch. In fact, Hayes’ defense was on display in his debut when he threw Kris Bryant out at home in a heads-up throw on a non-force play -- in a game in which Hayes also homered.

What’s next?
We’ll see how a full season goes for Hayes next year, but given that his underlying stats support the success he had this year in a small sample, there’s plenty for Pirates fans to be optimistic about.

Both Steamer and Depth Charts projections have Hayes as the team’s most productive position player next year by WAR, at 3.0 and 3.1, respectively. And those are in part based on past performance, which he doesn’t have much of a sample for yet. They also don’t factor in the compelling contact numbers noted above.

It isn’t just about Hayes' place on the Pirates, though. He is considered the front-runner for the NL Rookie of the Year Award, and given his combination of contact, pop and a slick glove, it’s easy to see why.