Pittsburgh Pirates: Each Breakout Candidate for 2023
By Noah Wright
Ke'Bryan Hayes was the Pirates' most infuriating player last season. You could just visualize the ability but just struggle to get the results. But based on his small Spring Training sample size, Hayes may have very well found something that works for him. If that change isn't just a product of Spring and a small sample, then he may end up as one of baseball's best third basemen.
The third baseman batted just .244/.314/.345 with a .294 wOBA and 88 wRC+. Hayes didn't strike out all that much, with a 21.4% strikeout rate in 560 plate appearances, and he drew some walks with an 8.6% walk rate. He also had an above-average whiff rate (75th percentile) and chase rate (63rd percentile). Raw power is not an issue for Hayes, as he was in the 85th percentile of exit velocity (91 MPH) and 84th percentile of hard-hit rate (46.8%).
But Hayes' launch angle was just 5.2 degrees, and this caused him to have a ground ball rate of nearly 50% at 49.4%. That was a slight improvement from his 52.7% ground ball rarte in 2021 but still was the main root of his issues. However, in Spring this season, that launch angle that previously clocked in below 6 degrees is now sitting right around 8.8-9.0 degrees. Back in 2020 when he made his debut and had a wRC+ of 194, his launch angle was 7.4 degrees.
Sure, his 2020 pace was likely unsustainable, but the important thing is that it shows he doesn't need to be Joey Gallo, going for an insanely high launch angle to be productive. Regarding expected statistics based on launch angle and exit velocity, he still had a .367 xwOBA.
Defensively, Hayes was the best in the league last year. He led his position in outs above average at +18, outshining division rival Nolan Arenado by four outs. In terms of defensive runs saved, Hayes led the league with +24, five more runs than Areando, and two more than Brendan Rogers, who finished in second place at the keystone.
Guys like Alejandro Kirk, Bo Bichette, Jose Abreu, Nate Lowe, and Willson Contreras may not have high launch angles, but they have similar raw power to Hayes and still manage to be good, even with an LA in the 7-8.5-degree range.