Unlocking the “Ke” to Success

3-24-23 – By Michael Castrignano – @412DoublePlay on Twitter

Entering this season, there is a lot more for fans to be excited about with regards to this team. Cutch is back in black and gold. Mitch Keller is looking every bit the front-line starter he was projected to be. Top prospect Endy Rodriguez is on the precipice of joining the club – with plenty of top prospects on the horizon as well. But there’s one player whose untapped potential is yet to be unlocked: Ke’Bryan Kobe Hayes

We all know the glove plays. If Nolan Arenado never existed, Ke’ would have at least one Gold Glove in his trophy case right now; however, the bat hasn’t progressed as many would have hoped. Gary wrote about the need for Ke’ to take a step this season in his article last month but now, with Spring Training winding down, let’s look back at where he’s been and where he could be heading.

The 32nd overall pick in the 2015 draft, Hayes decided to forego a commitment to University of Tennessee to sign with the Bucs. Manning the hot corner with plus fielding, speed and ability to hit for average, Hayes was noted for having a high baseball IQ and skills to develop into a solid glove-first 3B with some power potential.

Ke’ slowly worked his way through the minors, compiling 1,755 at-bats and posting a .279/.353/.401 slash line. Not a superstar line but a solid performance from their #2 prospect entering 2020.

When Hayes was initially called up, it followed all the typical fanfare surrounding a top, young prospect finally making his long-awaited debut. Hayes was mostly known for his work in the field throughout his time in the minors, winning three gold gloves before his name would appear on the Pirates lineup. In his brief 2020 debut, however, his bat was getting much more attention.

Over 24 games of the pandemic-shortened season, Ke’ posted a .376/.442/.682 triple slash with 5 home runs, 7 doubles and 2 triples in only 85 at-bats. He also had 4 defensive runs saved. This led to him netting some Rookie of the Year votes, resulting in a sixth place finish despite his abbreviated time in the pros.

The glove was expected. The bat, maybe a little less so.

Unfortunately, 2020 was his peak for offensive prowess to date as injuries have hampered his ability to build on that success. 2021 started with wrist inflammation, which led to multiple stints on the injured list. A lingering mid-back strain adversely impacted his swing throughout the 2022 season.

Over those two years, he posted a wRC+ of 88 with a .671 OPS. He posted stellar defensive numbers, even earning a Fielding Bible Award in 2021 and compiling 44 defensive runs saved since his debut (leading all of baseball in that time). But what about the offense? Can he just put it all together AND stay healthy? Was 2020 a flash-in-the-pan peak or the promise of what might be?

Ke’ comes from a solid baseball pedigree. His father, Charlie, caught the final out of the 1996 World Series as a member of the New York Yankees and played in the majors for over 12 years. His older brother, Tyree, had a short stint as a minor league pitcher a few years back. Neither of them will be making the kind of money young Hayes is slated to receive.

Ahead of the start to the 2022 season, it was announced that Ke’Bryan Hayes would be signing an 8-year, $70M contract with the Pirates, an annual average value of approximately $8.75M. 

He’s young and he’s had some growing pains. We all remember when he hit a home run but missed first base. Or last season, when – though not involved in a play – was caught on camera eating sunflower seeds while the runner rounded third. These are not the most ideal things to happen for the player who signed the richest contract in Pirates history.

In spite of his offensive deficiencies in recent years, he’s been a net-positive for the team. The overall numbers may vary based on which baseball statistics out you follow (FanGraphs has him with a 3.0 WAR in 2022 whereas Baseball Reference lists him with a 4.3) but they all point to the same conclusion: From defense alone, Hayes is EXTREMELY valuable but the offense is clearly lacking. However, there is reason to think that could change very soon.

For starters, Hayes bulked up A LOT this past off-season. Reportedly, he added 10-15 pounds of pure muscle. Videos released this off-season and seeing him in the cage, it’s paying off in a BIG WAY.

The power has honestly been there all along. His average exit velocity last season was 91 MPH with max exit velocity of 113 – both of which are well above league average. What isn’t above league average? His launch angle, which was a paltry 5.2 compared to league average of 12.1. This meant that despite having exit velo/hard hit numbers in the 84th percentile, he typically was rolling the ball over to the tune of a 49.6% ground ball rate. A little bit more lift could REALLY turn things around for him.

So far in Spring Training, he’s been hitting the ball harder and farther than anyone else on the team not named Oneil Cruz. As of this writing, he is tied for team lead in home runs (3) in addition to 2 doubles and a triple, and holds a .300/.323/.700 triple slash over 30 at-bats so far this spring. Just yesterday, he hit one ball at 105.9 MPH and another at 109.1. Both with a launch angle of 9 and both led to hits.

Hayes is locked up under contract longer than anyone else on this team. Any chance the Pirates have of making playoffs and being competitive starts and ends with him. A lot of things will have to go right.

If Hayes can stay healthy for a full season.

If he can increase and maintain a better launch angle.

If the day-to-day grind motivates him instead of wears him down.

It’s a lot of ‘ifs’ to be sure, but there’s a lot of reason to believe the ‘ifs’ will turn into a ‘when.’ And maybe, just maybe, he unlocks his true potential.

2 thoughts on “Unlocking the “Ke” to Success

  1. The tables really put things into perspective, and he did that WITH a lingering back injury. I told my buddy picking him in fantasy that he had a 50/50 chance of breaking out large this year. My buddy is a Braves fan and doesn’t seem to understand.


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