Toolshed: Bucs' Hayes hot at the corner

No. 92 overall prospect showing Gold Glove potential at third

Ke'Bryan Hayes has made 295 career starts at third base over his four seasons in the Minor Leagues. (Mark Olson/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | July 13, 2018 10:00 AM

Ke'Bryan Hayes still remembers his first successful infield drill. The son of 14-year Major Leaguer Charlie Hayes, he set up two bats in a cross formation and placed his left foot in the upper-left quadrant and his right in the lower right. When fielding a ball, he'd hop, move his feet to their opposing quadrants and then throw. It was an important lesson for a young infielder to keep his feet moving to make a play but also setting them firmly before making a strong thrown across the diamond -- and it was an early lesson at that.

"I was 4 or 5 years old," Hayes said. "Just thinking back to the first team I played on, the drills they had us doing, they had us well above the learning curve of the other kids at that age."

The 21-year-old Pirates prospect has been superior in the field ever since -- in fact, he's widely considered the best defensive third baseman in the Minor Leagues, and he has the accolades to prove it.

Hayes won a Minor League Gold Glove award last season with Class A Advanced Bradenton. Now with Double-A Altoona, he's climbed to the No. 92 overall spot in MLB.com's prospect rankings (third-best in the Pittsburgh system). Just this week, he started at the hot corner for the Western Division in the Eastern League All-Star Game at Trenton before traveling down to Washington by train to take his place in the U.S. Team infield at the Futures Game, happening Sunday.

All this came, in large part, because of his plus glove and plus arm.

"I'll tell you -- and I've told him this -- he's one of the best third basemen I've seen with my own eyes as far as being this age in the Minor Leagues," said Altoona manager Michael Ryan. "We're lucky to get to watch him every night. A lot of people get to see him once in a while, and they get to see how special he is. We're lucky to see that every night.

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"His hand-eye coordination, the way he can slow hops down. He makes bad hops look easy. He makes hard plays look very easy, and a lot of players just don't do that. He knows where to go with the baseball before it's hit to him. He knows the speed of the runner. He knows topspin, backspin, all those things."

That echoes a lot of what coaches, scouts, Pirates executives and opponents have said about Hayes since he was taken by Pittsburgh with the 32nd overall out of high school back in 2015. While positions up the middle -- center field, shortstop, second base -- often showcase more flash, third base can require a steadier hand. There isn't as much range needed, of course, but given the short distance a ball needs to travel from home plate and the long distance a throw must go to first, there are plenty of opportunities for error. With soft hands and a sure arm, however, Hayes eliminates some of the biggest issues associated with playing the hot corner. In fact, he's the only member of MLB.com's group of top-10 third-base prospects to receive 60 grades on the 20-80 scouting scale for both his glove and his arm.

"It's a thing that my high school coach always used to say -- be extraordinary at the ordinary," Hayes said. "I try to go out and make every play. I work on my defense just as much as my offense because not every night are you going to be able to get two or three hits. But you've still got to make every play, so that the other team isn't getting their hits. It's something I pride myself on. I think making an error looks worse than striking out."

But just making a solid play consistently might be underselling Hayes' abilities. Take it from fellow first-rounder Will Craig. The 23-year-old and fellow Eastern League All-Star was taken 22nd overall out of Wake Forest in 2016 as a third baseman, and the Bucs flirted with the idea of keeping him at the hot corner in his first pro summer. But when it became clear that Craig and Hayes would be on a collision course at third in 2017 in Bradenton, it was clear who would go where. Craig, who had the arm but not great range, became a first baseman and hasn't played third base in the Minors since. Given what he's seen across the diamond, he's OK with that.

"[Hayes is] probably the best third baseman I've ever seen," Craig said. "He makes every play look routine. We always joke that whenever he dives for a ball, it's like he's laying in bed. But yeah, he's an amazing player and it's an honor to play with him the past few years on opposite sides of the field."

Amazingly, Hayes might be getting even better at his best strengths. The Texas native -- who grew up watching Anthony Rendon (an elite defender himself) play with his brother Tyree in youth ball -- suffered a fractured rib in July 2016 while with Class A West Virginia -- an injury he said didn't properly heal until December or January the following offseason. During the time off, Hayes lost weight, causing him to pick up some speed on the basepaths and a little more range at third. 

Video: Hayes notches fourth hit of game for Altoona

But outside of the Gold Glove he won the season after that physical transformation, there are few sound statistical ways of measuring just how much Hayes has improved. While Major League followers can dig into advanced stats like Defensive Runs Saved or Ultimate Zone Rating (which admittedly have their own flaws), Minor League equivalents are difficult to find. There is, of course, the old standby of fielding percentage, and Hayes' .975 is best among Eastern League third basemen this season. It's also in line with the .974 that won him an award last season and an improvement over his .954 in 2016. But fielding percentage is based on errors, which come at the discretion of official scorers and are only a result of botched plays. They don't always take into account lack of range or poorly timed jumps or slow throws that don't beat out a sprinting runner. 

"We don't really look at anything on the defensive end too much -- at least we haven't in the Minor Leagues," said Hayes. "But they've showed us the errors that we've made -- how many were fielding, how many were throwing. They show us how many double plays we've turned. But it's nothing crazy metric-wise."

One thing that's much easier to track is Hayes' offensive development, and it could be those skills that determine whether Hayes will be a glove-first Major Leaguer or more of an all-around star. A right-handed hitter, he batted .278/.345/.363 with two homers and 27 steals in 108 games for Bradenton last season but has seen his slash line jump to .293/.361/.454 in 74 contests through the first half with Altoona. He's already doubled his home run output with four on the season. His strikeout rate has dipped slightly from 15.8 percent in 2017 to 15.1 now, and his walk rate is similarly trending in the right direction, going from 8.5 percent to 9.4. His .161 isolated slugging percentage is almost double his .086 from a year ago, and if the 6-foot-1 slugger were to continue to develop that tool, he could be a rare five-tool third baseman. There's still a long way to go in that department, but Hayes is optimistic.

"I started out pretty slow," he said, referencing a 1-for-20 opening to the season. "I was hitting the ball decent, but as it warmed up, the biggest jump for me is pitch selection. Picking a side of the zone I want to hit, depending on who I'm facing. The biggest adjustment is attacking zones because guys at Double-A, compared to high-A, they're able to move their fastball around the plate a little more."

No matter what happens offensively, Hayes has the defensive tools to make a Major League impact at third like Rendon, Matt Chapman or Nolan Arenado. This week, he's showing those tools on a national, and international, stage.

"I think it's an enjoyable experience for him to play in the Eastern League All-Star Game and go straight to D.C. for the Futures Game," Ryan said. "Put up his skills against the best young talent in the world. He can stick in there with them, and he's well-deserved of the honor. I'm excited to watch him compete with these guys, and we're rooting for him."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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