Pittsburgh Pirates: Examining the Struggles of Ke’Bryan Hayes

Jul 6, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes (13) gestures at second base after hitting a double against the Atlanta Braves during the fifth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 6, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes (13) gestures at second base after hitting a double against the Atlanta Braves during the fifth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
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Ke’Bryan Hayes has fallen into a slump with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But why is he struggling this year? What does he need to do to get back on track?

Pittsburgh Pirates highly touted third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes entered the season with big expectations, but is in a massive slump. This season he’s hitting .249/.319/.378 with a .306 wOBA, and 91 wRC+ through 232 plate appearances. He’s probably been the best defensive third baseman in all of baseball this year. Despite missing nearly 2 months, Hayes is third in third base DRS with +9 (min. 300 innings). His 8.2 UZR/150 ranks 4th, and he’s in the top 93rd percentile of outs above average with +5.

Now nobody expected Hayes to continue to hit like he did in 2020. Hayes’ .450 batting average on play and 195 wRC+ was unsustainable to say the least. But he hasn’t even been a league average batter. So what has happened to his offense?

Well I think part of it is bad luck. Hayes still is demolishing the baseball. He has a 91.8 MPH exit velocity and 48.1% hard hit rate. Those would be among the league’s best had he played enough to qualify. Bryce Harper (92 MPH/47.7%), J.D. Martinez (91.8 MPH/48.8%), and Jesse Winker (92 MPH/47.7%) all have very comparable exit velocity and hard hit rates. It’s also worth noting that among the 46 qualified players with a hard hit rate above 45%, only one has a wRC+ below 100 currently. That’s another 2020 rookie standout, Alec Bohm

Some may say that this is just Hayes returning to his norm. That he was never that good of a hitter to begin with because his minor league numbers were never off the charts impressive. But even if he returned to his minor league norm in terms of batted ball rates, he’d still be a very good hitter.

Hayes is hitting ground balls at a 57.1% rate. That’s over 10% higher than any of his single-season ground ball rates throughout the minor leagues. He also has just a 15.6% line drive rate. Hayes consistently sat around 20% in terms of line drive rate throughout the minors. 15.6% is absurdly low. Since batted ball rates started to be tracked in 2002, there have only been 29 instances where a player had at least 600 plate appearances in a season, and a LD% lower than that. I doubt that the Hayes we’re seeing is historically bad at hitting line drives.

I also don’t think it’s fair to say this is what Hayes is because his minor league hitting numbers weren’t the most standout. 2018-2019 Hayes is very different from 2021 Hayes. Even if you just watch and compare some clips and highlights from his time in the minors vs this year, he sets himself up differently in the box while having a bit of a shorter leg kick now compared to 2019.

Remember he hasn’t even played a half season’s worth of games yet. Not every player is going to be like Ronald Acuna Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., or Juan Soto. It sometimes takes a year or two to get into the swing of things. Just look at Vladimir Guerrero Jr. While he wasn’t bad in 2019 or 2020, it took him 183 MLB games until he found his stroke. Freddie Freeman had a .789 OPS through his first 1279 plate appearances. Nick Castellanos was a below league average hitter for 2 whole years before putting up a wRC+ above 100. All of Freeman, Guerrero Jr., and Castellanos were top 20 or better prospects like Hayes. It could also just be a case of sophmore slump if you want to consider his 2020 season his ‘rookie’ season given the shortened season. Instant success isn’t going to happen with every high ranking prospect.

Let Hoy Park Play. dark. Next

If Hayes’ 2020 performance was unsustainable, his 2021 performance isn’t sustainable either. Hayes. He’ll get his line drive rate to about 22% and his ground ball rate closer to 45% as those are much closer to what he did in the minor leagues. Even if he does just that, combined with his hard hit and exit velocity marks, you’re looking at a guy who could compete for a Silver Slugger, along with a Gold Glove on a consistent basis. The raw power and talent is there. He just needs to get the ball in the air a bit more often.