CHARLESTON, WV – The Pirates gave Ke’Bryan Hayes an aggressive push to West Virginia this year, sending the 2015 first round pick to full season ball at the age of 19, making him one of the youngest players in the league. By the early results, you wouldn’t even know that this was an aggressive push for Hayes, as he is handling the league well through his first month of the year.
The third baseman is off to a great start at the plate, hitting for a .333/.358/.440 line in 82 plate appearances. His defense was highly touted out of the draft as his best asset, and has lived up to the hype so far.
“He has some instincts out there on the dirt,” West Virginia Manager Brian Esposito said. “In terms of reading some hops, and his footwork, and how he handles the baseball, when he needs to throw the baseball across the diamond, when he needs to set his feet. He’s got a high baseball IQ, and he’s got the tools to go with it.”
That high baseball IQ comes from being in a baseball family. Ke’Bryan is the son of Charlie Hayes, who spent 14 years in the majors, including the 1996 season with the Pirates. His father played all over the field, but primarily was at third base, which is where Ke’Bryan projects to stick for his career.
His older brother, Tyree, was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the eighth round of the 2006 draft. Tyree didn’t make it out of A-ball as a right-handed pitcher, and retired after the 2012 season, but Ke’Bryan was able to learn from him.
“Since I was able to understand what [my dad was] telling me, I’ve been able to just take in as much information as I can,” Hayes said. “Even my brother, he knows what the other pitchers are trying to do to get the hitter out. As much as they can tell me, I’m taking in all of it.”
You can see the baseball IQ coming through at a young age, as Hayes is already able to recognize his own struggles, and works with his coaches to improve on those flaws. He actually had better numbers heading into last week, but ran into a bit of a slump, due to some issues with his swing. He noticed those issues, and went to work right away.
“I kind of noticed that my barrel wasn’t getting out front,” Hayes told me this past weekend. “So me and [West Virginia Hitting Coach] Ryan [Long] went in and looked at some video. Some of it was due to my stance being a little bit closed.”
I noticed in Friday’s game that Hayes seemed to be pushing a few balls to right field, getting weak pop ups. He went 1-for-10 and didn’t have strong contact in the first three games that I saw last week. He talked with Long after that last game on Thursday night, and on Friday he made an adjustment, coming out and getting a few hard hit balls up the middle, one of which went for a hit.
“One of the things we talked about was being able to hit some balls to left-center,” Long said. “For us, it’s the whole field. He can get wrapped up sometimes in using the right side.”
Hayes said that his issue was that he was blocking off his swing by ending up in a closed stance. He usually starts off neutral, with his feet aligned parallel to the plate. When his swing is right, he lands in that same position. Last week, Hayes was landing closed off, leading to the weak contact the other way.
“We’ve been working on that, just making sure I’m in line, and landing with a neutral balance,” Hayes said. “Sometimes I drift forward, and that makes my barrel lag.”
Long has been impressed with what he’s seen from Hayes, also mentioning how the baseball family helps him.
“He’s a good athlete,” Long said. “His big separator is his feel. His instincts are really good. He’s got feel. He knows how to play the game. He grew up in the game. I know that sounds funny sometimes, but he has those instincts of how to play, and when to take a base, and what to look for with certain pitches. So he’s a little advanced in those areas. And he’s got a good eye/hand and good zone awareness for a young hitter.”
One thing lacking from his offensive game right now is power. Hayes has shown some flashes of that so far, hitting a home run and a few doubles at the start of the season. He hasn’t had an extra base hit for over two weeks, since that first homer, showing that the power isn’t consistently there. The Pirates feel Hayes can eventually hit for more power as he grows. This is something that Hayes understands as well, getting more advice from his father.
“My dad is always telling me, ‘Don’t worry about power, it’s going to come as you mature.’ I’m still very young. I’ve got a bunch of baby fat on me. So just go out there and work hard and give it your best.”
Hayes mentions the “baby fat”, and has made similar comments in the past, but he appears to be in great shape. During Spring Training, I detailed his mountain biking workouts, and how he turned himself into a first round pick by sticking to that workout routine and cutting down his weight in high school. I’ve never really seen Hayes as a kid who was out of shape, and his repeated comments about staying in shape suggest that he won’t be reverting back to that anytime soon.
Right now, the primary thing Hayes needs to work on is his offensive consistency. But don’t think that he’s not working on his defense, even if it does look smooth and gets strong reviews from opposing scouts.
“I value defense just as much as my hitting,” Hayes said. “Every night, you’re not going to be able to go out and get four hits in a game. So you’re going to make sure you’re going to take away the other team’s hits. So defense is, I would say just as or more important than hitting.”
That’s yet another sign of maturity from a kid who hasn’t even reached the age of 20 yet. That could all be due to his family’s background in baseball. Either way, it’s a great sign for a talented player who has all of the tools to eventually be a starting third baseman in the majors.