In 2017, when Ke’Bryan Hayes slugged .363 in Class A Advanced, evaluators were beginning to wonder when the power would show up for the Pirates’ third-base prospect, who was still young and growing into his body.
Now, we’re beginning to wonder if his power will ever cool off.
With a near-freezing wind howling in from the outfield on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, Hayes stepped up to the plate in the first inning against Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks. The 24-year-old showed no nerves on his first Opening Day, turning on a 2-1 changeup for a two-run homer to set the tone for Pittsburgh’s 5-3 win over Chicago with his dad, brother, niece and girlfriend all in the stands.
“That ball was a bomb,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said.
It had to be to carry a Statcast-estimated 410 feet to deep left field. After consistently posting 100-plus mph exit velocities throughout Spring Training, Hayes’ first hit of the season was clocked at 105.3 mph off the bat, and despite hanging up in the air with a 102-foot peak, it fell comfortably in the outfield seats.
“I felt like I couldn’t have squared it up any better,” Hayes said. “I was a little out front, but I squared it up pretty good, so I knew it was going to go out.”
The Pirates largely know what they’re getting out of Hayes, who is the front-runner for the National League Rookie of the Year Award after hitting .376/.442/.682 in September last season. He’s played only 25 games in the Majors -- with 51 Spring Training at-bats sprinkled in between his two big league seasons -- but he’s yet to show weakness or look overmatched.
However, a few areas that had question marks entering the season allowed the Pirates to carry Hayes' momentum and seal the win.
The most noticeable of those areas was the bullpen. The Pirates kept many of the key leverage options they had last season, losing only Keone Kela and Nick Burdi, but they have three new additions to their Opening Day bullpen in Duane Underwood Jr., David Bednar and Luis Oviedo.
The first two were part of a dominant six-inning stretch by Pittsburgh’s relievers, over which the unit struck out a combined 11 batters and allowed only one hit. Bednar contributed two strikeouts in his first appearance with his hometown team, while Underwood K’d the side against his former club, which traded him to the Pirates during Spring Training.
“I knew this matchup was coming since I got traded,” Underwood said. “It was exciting to go against those guys. Those are great hitters, man. That's a great team, and to do what we did today, I think that was a real testament to how spring went for a lot of guys and what we want to do as a ballclub moving forward.”
Perhaps a more critical focus this year, though, will be good at-bats up and down the lineup. In Game 1 of 162, that was the outcome. The Pirates drew 11 walks against the Cubs, marking the most by any team on Opening Day since Cleveland walked 11 times in 2012. That ability to work counts helped them to overcome a 3-for-20 performance with runners in scoring position.
“If we can do that and put pitchers in a situation where they have to execute pitches, mistakes will get made,” Shelton said. “We did a really good job of grinding out some at-bats.”
Though Hayes ended up 1-for-5 on the day, he’s part of that group, too. In fact, one of his outs -- a hard fly ball to right field in the fourth -- should have gone down as a sacrifice fly had Dustin Fowler tagged up at third base instead of being caught halfway down the basepath and forced to retreat.
But no matter. Hayes is expected to keep that same consistency down the stretch, and for now, there seems to be no answer to tone down the pop generated by the 5-foot-10 third baseman. As far as we can tell, his power is here to stay.
“It doesn't surprise me,” Pirates pitcher Chad Kuhl said. “That guy hits everything hard. He's just an unbelievable player. Really happy for him to start the season this way."