Pittsburgh Pirates: Improving Ke’Bryan Hayes Offense for Next Season

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Ke’Bryan Hayes has some of the best potential on the Pittsburgh Pirates, but there’s one massive flaw in his game that is severly holding him back, and could be fixed for 2023.

Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes turned in a disappointing 2022 season at the dish. The defensively gifted infielder batted just .244/.314/.345 with a .294 wOBA and 88 wRC+. Hayes ranked last at his position in OPS, wOBA, and wRC+. But Hayes certainly has the potential to be an excellent hitting third baseman and a power-hitting one at that. Heck, he has the potential to be a top-five hitter (maybe even top-three) at his position. So what can the Pirates do to fix Hayes and make him productive at the dish?

Hayes already does two of the hardest things in the sport when it comes to hitting. He posted both a decent walk rate and strikeout rate. Last year, Hayes walked 8.6% of the time with a 21.8% strikeout rate. The league average BB% and K% in 2022 were 8.2% and 22.4%, respectively. Hayes might not be advanced in either stat, but he is decent any way you spin it in those two categories. On the plus side, he’s in the 75th percentile of whiff rate and 63rd percentile of chase rate. He also makes contact at a well-above-average rate. His 81.1% contact rate is 4.5% better than the league average mark.

Hayes also has a ton of raw power. Hayes was in the 85th percentile of average exit velocity with a 91 MPH mark and 84th percentile of hard-hit rate, posting a 46.8% rate. He hit the ball harder than some of baseball’s best power hitters like Paul Goldschmidt, Mookie Betts, Rhys Hoskins, and Carlos Correa. He hit the ball hard more often than Oneil Cruz, Christian Walker, Willy Adames, Eugenio Suarez, and Kyle Tucker. There’s no question that Hayes is hitting the ball on the screws.

There’s also no question Hayes has the power to be a productive batter. He’s the first batter in the Statcast Era to rank this high in both exit velocity, and hard-hit rate yet fall short of the 20-home-run plateau in an entire season (aside from the shortened 2020 campaign). So if Hayes hits the ball hard, and hits the ball hard often, doesn’t strike out all that much, and walks at an average rate, where is the flaw in his game?

It’s lifting the baseball. Hayes had a 5.2-degree launch angle, the 22nd lowest in baseball. There were some highly productive batters with a low launch angle, like Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Michael Harris, but very few posted decent numbers with a launch angle of 5 degrees or lower. Hayes had the 17th-highest ground ball rate in the league at 49.4%. That has critically limited Hayes’s power ability.

The main thing Hayes needs to work on this off-season is adjusting his swing for more lift. Hayes doesn’t need to become Joey Gallo to be productive at the dish and become a fly ball-or-bust hitter. But compare him to Toronto Blue Jay catcher Alejandro Kirk, who has a similar exit velocity and hard-hit rate. Kirk only had an 8.1-degree launch angle, yet he had a 129 wRC+ and was an all-star. Willson Contreras was also comparable to Hayes in terms of exit velo and hard-hit rate but had an 8.5-degree launch angle and 22 home runs with a .224 isolated slugging percentage. Texas Rangers’ first baseman Nate Lowe slugged 27 dingers and had a 143 wRC+ with a 90.2 MPH exit velo, 44.8% hard-hit rate, and 8.2-degree launch angle. Another Blue Jay in Bo Bichette hit over 20 home runs with a 129 wRC+ with a 91.9 MPH exit velo, 50.3% hard-hit rate, and 8.5-degree launch angle. These four players all had a sub-10-degree launch angle, yet they were still productive.

What separates Kirk, Contreras, and Lowe from Hayes is their barrel rate. All three had a barrel rate of 5.2% or greater (both Contreras and Lowe had a 6.8% barrel rate). Barrel rate is how often a player hits a ball with a launch angle in the 26-30 degree range and at least hit 98 MPH. In simpler terms, it’s how often a player hits a ball that lands for a hit at least 50% of the time and leads to a slugging percentage of at least 1.500.

On the other hand, Hayes had a barrel rate of just 2.7%. Only three players in 2022 had a sub-3% barrel rate and OPS+ of 100 or greater. But in all three cases, they also had 10 degrees or higher launch angles. Those three were Nico Hoerner, Jeff McNeil, and Steven Kwan. Hoerner had the lowest launch angle of the three at 10.7 degrees.

It’s not uncharted territory for Hayes to get his launch angle closer to 8 degrees and barrel rate up to 6-8%. Hayes’ best stretch of games was in 2020, when he was first promoted to the major leagues. It was a small sample size, but Hayes had a 7.4-degree launch angle and a 9.2% barrel rate. Impressively, Hayes has the highest exit velocity ever for a batter with a sub-3.0% barrel rate.

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Hayes has the power to be a very good major league batter. The third baseman makes contact at a high rate, hits the ball hard, and draws some walks. On top of that, he isn’t striking out a ton or swinging at bad pitches. For Hayes, it’s all about lifting the ball more often. Hayes needs to figure this out, as it’s the only thing stopping him from being a top 3 player at his position (maybe even the best player at his position). He has the talent and work ethic to make the adjustment, but until the adjustment is made, Hayes will not see much progression at the dish, as while he is hitting the ball on the screws, it has mostly been into the ground.