Despite a frustrating game on Tuesday night, Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes appears to be getting into a groove offensively
One of the major question marks heading into the 2023 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates would be how Ke’Bryan Hayes would perform with the bat. There was no question that he was baseball’s best defensive third baseman, but his bat had been lacking after an outstanding 2020 cameo. Between 2021 and 2022, Hayes only hit .249/.315/.356 with a .297 wOBA, and 88 wRC+. Hayes posted about a respectable 8.3% walk rate and 21.9% strikeout rate, but his isolated slugging percentage came in at under .110 at .107.
Now when you look at Hayes’ numbers so far this season, things don’t look much different. Through his first 124 plate appearances of the season he is hitting for a .230/.290/.363 slash line with a 76 wRC+. However, his first week and a half did not go great and since April 11th, Hayes has looked like a changed batter.
Over the course of his last 78 plate appearances, Hayes is batting .294/.372/.485. Hayes has walked (9) more often than he has struck out (8), and is putting the raw power he displayed in the past to good use. His isolated slugging percentage clocks in at .191. His wRC+ comes in at 131, meaning he's been 31% better than the league average batter.
In terms of raw power, Hayes has always been well above average and nothing much has changed this year (afterall he is the first hitter to play a full season and be in the 85th+ percentile of exit velocity and hard hit rate and not have 20 home runs). His 92.1 MPH exit velo is the highest he’s had since 2020, and his 44.8% hard hit rate is in the top 70th percentile.
What he has changed over the course of this hot streak is his launch angle. Hayes previously struggled greatly with getting the ball off the ground with a 2.6 and 5.7 degree launch angle in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Last season, his barrel rate was just 3.9%. Since April 11th, Hayes has a much improved 8.3 degree launch angle and 8.2% barrel rate. Sure, Hayes got off to a great start in April 2022, but this is the major difference between this year and last year. At the end of April 2022, Hayes was batting .333/.420/.420. The difference was he had a 2.4 degree launch angle and barrel rate of just 5.5%.
Overall, Hayes has upped his xwOBA to .348, compared to just .302 last season. Lifting the ball more often isn’t the only thing Hayes has improved. Like many Pirates players, his approach at the plate is also very different compared to 2022. Hayes is currently in the 99th percentile of whiff rate. He’s always been above average at making contact, being in the 75th and 77th percentile of whiff rate in 2022 and 2021, but that’s an overall difference of nearly 7%. He is down to just 13.8%, compared to 20.4% last year. Pitchers almost can never get anything past Hayes in the strike zone. His in-zone contact rate is a whopping 95.5%. Given how hard he is hitting the ball and now with loft, that kind of contact rate could be deadly in the long run.
So far, the improvements Hayes has made are really paying dividends. Over the past three weeks, Hayes has really looked the part of a great hitting third baseman. Is it a small sample size? Yes, but you can’t deny everything he is doing looks a whole lot better than in 2022. If Hayes keeps up this pace over his next 600 plate appearances, he’ll be worth over +6.0 fWAR.