Pittsburgh Pirates: Setting 2021 Expectations For Ke’Bryan Hayes

(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

Ke’Bryan Hayes was outstanding in his first taste of big league action with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020. What could we see from him in 2021?

Ke’Bryan Hayes entered the 2020 season as the top prospect that the Pittsburgh Pirates had. He ranks as the 15th best prospect in all of baseball per FanGraphs. Hayes is best known for his defense at the hot corner. He’s given a 60 current/70 future grade by FanGraphs and 60 throw grade.

Hayes is the second best defensive non-catcher position player prospect, and best defensive non-catcher infield prospect in the game. When he was promoted to the Majors, Hayes collected +4 DRS, an 8.9 UZR and 0.5 range runs above average in 198.1 innings. Across 850 innings, he would have had +17 DRS for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

However, his bat could easily be slept on. Hayes was not a great hitter at Triple-A, turning in a .265/.336/.415 line and 92 wRC+ through 480 plate appearances, but he did suffer an injury that kept him out of the game for about a quarter of the month, and he was a better hitter once he returned from his injury. He hit .290/.337/.435 in the second half of the season. He also put up a 92 MPH exit velocity, but struggled with getting the ball in the air with a 46.4% ground ball rate.

Last season, Hayes made his long awaited debut and was impressive. While it was only 95 plate appearances, Hayes was outstanding posting a .376/.442/.682 line with 13 extra base hits and a 195 wRC+.

His outstanding batted ball rates carried over into the Majors putting up a 92.8 MPH exit velocity and 55.4% hard hit rate. Those would have ranked among some of the best in baseball had he kept those numbers up for an entire season. Hayes did see his line drive rate take a step forward in 2020, but his ground ball rate rose to 47.7% and had a batting average on balls in play of .450, but you can’t really go by those numbers exactly to predict how he’ll play next season. It was a sample size of less than 100 plate appearances. His BAbip goes down a whole 15 points if he strikes out two less times.

Still, Hayes has a now-elite leve hit tool coming in with a 60 current/future grade. Both of his game power and raw power grades are 50, but given his ability to make hard contact consistently, they could go up if he keeps up the batted ball rates he had in 2020.

So where does that leave Hayes for 2021? Well, Baseball Reference projects him to hit .288/.364/.502 with 10 home runs across a shortened season’s worth of plate appearances (248). Across 600, that would look a lot like Matt Chapman’s 2018 season.

Like Hayes, Chapman is one of the best defenders in the game, regardless of position. During 2018, he hit .277/.356/.502 with 24 home run in 616 plate appearances. With his well above average bat and top of the line defense, Chapman had a 6.6 fWAR and 8.3 bWAR. Also like Hayes, Chapman had great batted ball numbers with a 93.1 MPH exit velocity and 47.8% hard hit rate.

This projection is from Tom Tango’s system, which is one of the most basic in the game. It also requires much more of a sample size than 95 plate appearances since it uses three year’s worth of data. Steamer projects the Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman to be a well above average hitter, just not to the level of Tango’s system. Steamer sees him hitting .284/.354/.464 with 18 long balls across 560 plate appearances with a 112 wRC+, which is still very good.

Another notable stat to look at is deserved runs created plus, or DRC+, which is Baseball Prospectus’ version of FanGraphs wRC+ and Baseball Reference’s OPS+. Out of the three, DRC+ is the best to predict future production. Hayes had a 116 DRC+ which is close to the 112 wRC+ Steamer projects. 116 DRC+ is still a good number as that would be on par with second place 2020 National League Rookie of the Year finisher Jake Cronenworth (116), Mets’ Jeff McNeil (118) and Silver Slugger winner Eloy Jimenez (114).

It’s also worth taking a look at Baseball Savant’s expected stats like xBA, xSLG and xwOBA. His xBA sat at a strong .300 mark and his xSLG was at .497. However his xwOBA was .356 compared to his actual wOBA of .457. Still, those are almost identical to Ozzie Albies in 2019. Albies had hit .295/.352/.500 with 24 long balls and 43 doubles. His expected stats included a .292 xBA, .497 xSLG and .356 xwOBA. It’s almost a complete mirror of Hayes’ expected stats. Notably, Albies also had a DRC+ in the ballpark of Hayes’ DRC+ at 119.

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There is a lot of variety within all of these given that some are using a small size of data to project, but all seem to agree on one thing, Hayes should be a really good batter moving forward. Both his expected stats and exit velocity and hard hit rate on Baseball Savant represent a very good hitter. Baseball Reference projects an elite caliber player while both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs’ Steamer see a plus hitter.

Hayes definitely needs to decrease his ground ball rate moving forward though but that was one of the parts of his game he was working on in Spring Training 2020 and he’s talented enough to where he can do that. Though he may never be a huge home run guy, he definitely has the ability to drive the gap and rack up a ton of doubles for the Pittsburgh Pirates.