CHARLESTON, WV – As the youngest position player on the Power roster by more than two years, Ke’Bryan Hayes knows a lot is riding on him. One year ago, Hayes signed as a first-round draft pick, passing up an opportunity to play at the University of Tennessee. Based on his performance in the past year, it looks like the 19-year-old made the right decision.
In 2015, Hayes spent time in the GCL and, briefly, Morgantown, and his excellent line (.308/.408/.346) persuaded the Pirates to push the young third baseman to the West Virginia Power in 2016, where he has continued the strong start to his professional career.
In some areas, such as average and on-base percentage, the aggressive push to the next level has hindered Hayes. In 2016, those two statistics have dipped to .269 and .325, respectively, which are still respectable numbers and certainly helped Hayes to his position on the South Atlantic League All-Star team.
The last month has been particularly hard on Hayes. In April, he hit .343/.368/.457 and was among the league leaders in all three categories, but in May, his line dropped to .214/.292/.381.
West Virginia Power manager Brian Esposito does not seem particularly concerned with Hayes’s dip in production.
“The book’s out on him. He’s a solid hitter,” said Esposito. “Teams know how to pitch him a little bit now, and they’re going to look to exploit some of the holes in his swing.”
The exposure to various pitches and sequences will help Hayes develop into a more well-rounded batter, according to Esposito.
“He’s getting a pretty good dose of a good mix of breaking ball, fastball, changing eye levels on him,” Esposito said. “It’s exactly what he needs to develop at this level.”
Hayes has recognized this potential for growth as well and says that he has been working with the Power coaches to “land with balance and recognize the fastball and curveball.”
When Hayes successfully identifies the pitch and lands with balance, his power comes through. This season, his slugging percentage is up by five percent, and he has hit the first six home runs of his professional career. He has almost twice as many doubles as in 2015.
When drafted, the Pirates expected a high batting average and above-average fielding ability, but Hayes’s power potential seemed to be unclear. Hayes stuck to a strict exercise routine while in high school but still had some “baby fat” when he played in the lower levels last year. This off-season, Hayes “got more in shape,” which he cites as the reason for the blossoming of his power.
With great power often come less-than-great strikeout totals. In the past 20 games, Hayes has struck out 23 times. In the month of April, Hayes only had two multi-strikeout games, but since then, he has struck out multiple times on eight separate occasions. Such frustrations can be hard for any player to handle, but the 19-year-old has a very mature approach to these set-backs.
After a recent three-strikeout night, Hayes talked through his plans for bouncing back: “[You] just kind of flush it out tonight, review it, how those at-bats went and then tomorrow…go out there and play.”
Esposito has been impressed by the young prospect’s level-headedness, as well.
“You’re going to have your dips, but for a 19-year-old kid, he handles them very well,” he said.
The defensive side of the game has always been Hayes’ strong suit. He came into his professional career with a strong arm and a sharp first step, and he has been working to develop his skills further this year. With 2016 first-round draft pick Will Craig eventually sharing a position with him, Hayes needs to be as adaptable and skilled as he possibly can be.
To add to his value at the hot corner, Hayes has been working with minor league infield coordinator Gary Green to prepare for an eventual move to the upper levels.
“I’ve worked on a few things [such as] playing deeper, because as I go up, balls are going to start coming a little harder,” said Hayes.
In order to snag those hard-hit balls, Hayes is working on “just being balanced, whether I’m going to go to my left or my right, and lateral movement.”
Hayes has the ability to hit for average. He’s got solid plate patience, which has struggled a bit as he’s tried to add more power. He is the best defensive third baseman in the system, and projects to stick at third in the long-term. When the average, power, and fielding come together, Hayes looks to be a true prospect with a clear path through the minor leagues, and a shot at being a starting third baseman in Pittsburgh.