After experiencing a dip in power in 2019, how can Pittsburgh Pirates third base prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes improve in 2020?
One major position of need for the Pittsburgh Pirates is third base. The past two seasons the team’s primary third baseman has been Colin Moran, who was one of the key pieces the team received from the Houston Astros in the Gerrit Cole trade.
Moran, however, has underwhelmed with the Pirates. In 293 games with the Pirates Moran has slashed .277/.331/.419 to go with a .142 ISO and a just below league average 98 wRC+ in 968 plate appearances. Defensively, Moran has been an absolute butcher at third base posting a -13.1 dWAR while being responsible for -32(!) defensive runs saved. All of this has led to Moran posting just a 0.8 fWAR during his two seasons manning the hot corner for the Pirates.
Whenever the 2020 season begins, Moran will likely remain the Pirates primary third baseman. At least against right-handed pitching, as Jose Osuna or Erik Gonzalez could see starts against left-handed pitching. Regardless of how things shake out to start the season, sooner rather than late Ke’Bryan Hayes will be the team’s starting third baseman.
Hayes is one of the top third base prospects in baseball, as well as being a consensus top 100 prospect. While Hayes needs to improve offensively, he is already a Gold Glove caliber defensive third baseman. As evident by him winning the Minor League Baseball Glove Glove Award at third base each of the past two seasons.
With the Double-A Altoona Curve in 2018 Hayes appeared to be turning a corner offensively. His .151 ISO, .444 slugging percentage, 129 wRC+, 16.7% walk rate, and 10.3% extra base hit rate were all career highs. Most encouragingly, this came while playing his home games at a very hitter friendly People’s Natural Gas Field in Altoona.
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Hayes performance with the Curve led to him spending the 2019 season with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. While his 9.0% walk rate remained above league average and his .150 ISO was still strong, he saw his slugging percentage dip to .415 and his extra base hit rate to 9.8%.
So, what caused Hayes drop in power in 2019? Hitting too many ground balls.
With Indy last season Hayes had a healthy 92.0 MPH exit velocity. This was well above the MLB average of 87.5 MPH. While hitting the ball hard was not Hayes problem, hitting on the ground was.
Hayes hit the ball on the ground 46.4% of the time in 2019. With Altoona in 2018, this number was only 40.3%. The more than 6% increase in ground balls can account for his dip in power despite routinely hitting the ball hard in 2019.
As Ben Clemens of FanGraphs lays out, hitting the ball straight into the ground is a death sentence for a hitter. This is why hitters with a high ground ball rate typically are less successful, and if they are it likely is not sustainable.
Now, hitting the ball straight into the air is not much better. The key to being a good hitter is hitting line drives, barreling the ball and finding the correct launch angle. This is where Hayes needs to improve in 2020.
Hayes will want to find the sweet spot more in 2020. According to Baseball Savant, the sweet spot is any ball with a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees. This is what Hayes needs to work with his coaches to strive for in 2020.
If his results from Grapefruit League play were any indication, Hayes may be finding this sweet spot. In 30 plate appearances this spring Hayes slashed a healthy .280/.400/.440, this included five walks, a home run and a double. He was also robbed of at least one other home run by the always wild and wonderful Florida winds.
In 2020 Hayes will need to barrel the ball more to avoid hitting it into the ground. With more line drive and an improved launch angle in 2020, Hayes will likely see a spike in power. If his Grapefruit League stats were any sign of things to come, then Hayes should be in store for a big 2020 season that includes seeing him become the starting third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates.