Rookie of the Year Watch: Ke'Bryan Hayes
I think it's fair to say that there wasn't a better late season call up last year than Pittsburgh Pirates' third baseman, Ke'Bryan Hayes. Debuting for the Bucs on September 1st, the former first round draft pick displayed many of the intangibles that teams look for in an up-and-coming player, including a strong intellect at the plate and quick reflexes at the hot corner. And while he had already been one of the most highly projected prospects before he made it to the majors, his strong first month in the league helped make him one of the highest risers on just about every top prospect list coming into this season.
From 2020 to 2021, his rankings across all notable baseball sites skyrocketed from the middle of the pack to the best of the best. In fact on MLB's own top prospect list, Hayes jumped from 37th overall to ninth, where he currently sits. As it stands, he's the highest ranked player currently on a major league roster as of writing.
For those of you who don't know about Ke'Bryan Hayes, he was born just outside Houston, Texas on January 27th 1997 and is the youngest son of former journeyman ballplayer Charlie Hayes, who is best remembered as the Yankee third baseman who caught the final out of the 1996 World Series.
After dominating in high school, Ke'Bryan was drafted 32nd overall in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. While he had initially committed to play at the University of Tennessee, he elected to forgo college and head straight to the minors. During his five year stretch in the Pirates' system, Hayes was selected to three minor league All-Star Games and gradually became the team's most promising future star, along with fellow rising talents Cole Tucker and Oneil Cruz.
After continuing his steady ascent up the minor league ladder, Hayes was finally given the opportunity to hit the big time and play in the Majors as a September call up. This decision exhilarated Pirates fans if only because their season had been an unmitigated disaster up until that point, and they desperately needed to find a reason to have some sort of hope for the future.
One of the main components to Hayes' game that caused this excitement was his near-transcendent ability in the field. In an era where there are a bevy of unbelievably accomplished third basemen in baseball, Hayes could seriously challenge for the crown as the league's best. While playing in the minor leagues, Hayes became the second player ever to win three Gold Glove awards. Now while a player of his ability rarely sees himself playing in the minors long enough to earn this distinction, it should be noted that this is still a fantastic honor. Over his 331 game career in said minor leagues, he committed only 17 errors. To put that into perspective, Cincinnati Reds' third baseman Eugenio Suarez committed the same number of errors during the 2019 regular season alone.
Hayes continued his strong play in the field in 2020, finishing his initial 24 game run with only one error committed. If he had continued at that same pace, he would've finished an ordinary 162 game season with either six or seven errors, both of which would've given him a lower total than both men who won Gold Gloves at third base in 2019, Matt Chapman and Nolan Arenado. Of course it's impossible to guess whether or not that rate would've continued as it did, but the fact that he's even in the same conversation as two of the best third basemen in the modern era this soon after his debut is pretty spectacular. If you ask me, Hayes could very well become a multiple time Gold Glove recipient in the National League, or at the very least, he will be a constant finalist for said award with Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado.
Of course fielding is only half the game, so how did Hayes fair while up to bat? Well, regardless of what peoples' expectations were for him before his debut, he absolutely shattered them. Hayes finished his first month in the hardest baseball league on the planet with a ridiculous .376 batting average, a 1.124 OPS (on base + slugging percentage), and 14 extra base hits off 32 total knocks. These would be impressive statistics for anyone, but it's simply ridiculous for a rookie.
While Hayes was regarded as a dependably good hitter in the minor leagues, I couldn't find a single scout or other baseball expert who predicted that he was capable of this kind of production right out of the gate. It seemed like he could do it all with a bat in his hands; he could hit for average, he was capable against both right handed and left handed pitchers, in games that his team won he hit .536, and when he was ahead in the count, he had an OPS of 1.607, which is a statistic that is so cartoonishly high that I laughed out loud when I first saw it.
All of this is to say that I think that Ke'Bryan Hayes could be a superstar in MLB for years to come. While many of us are all ogling at Mike Trout, Juan Soto, and Fernando Tatis Jr., as we should, the league is constantly churning out new potentially great players every single year. And while none of us should expect the kind of offensive production Hayes did last season, I do suspect that he could grow into one of the game's most exciting third basemen. Of course, the game of baseball isn't played on message boards or in our own imagination, but on freshly cut grass fields. So we'll just have to wait and see how Ke'Bryan's career unfolds. But I'm eager to see how his career fairs in 2021, and beyond.
Featured Image - AP Photo/Gene J. Puska
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