After a year in the corporate world writing emails five days a week, I find myself inclined to begin articles the same way I format my work emails.
I’m reaching out to let you know I’m writing an article about how good you’ve become at baseball.
Feel free to reach out with any questions.
Obviously, that style doesn’t lend itself to articles about baseball, mainly because it’s devoid of the emotion and pizzazz that makes pieces like these enjoyable to read. However, as I sat and thought about actually implementing that structure into an article, I found that it actually does relate to the situation in which Ke’Bryan Hayes finds himself during his fourth major league season.
In a bit of a stretch of an analogy, Hayes is reaching out. Not to his client, but for his potential as a baseball player. Hayes is finally reaching the level of stardom many deemed him capable of when he broke into the league in 2020.
In his first taste of MLB, the 23-year-old third baseman played in 24 games, making himself known by way of a .376/.442/.684 slash line and 194 wRC+ to go with five long balls and exceptional defense at the hot corner. Despite the small sample, his plethora of tools were on full display and set the stage for fans and fantasy analysts to hype him up as one of the best up-and-coming two-way players in the league.
Despite playing in just 24 games in 2020, Ke'Bryan Hayes led all rookies with 1.9 WAR per @baseball_ref. He had a 55.4% hard-hit rate & 18.1% whiff rate — no qualified hitter had a HH% that high with a whiff% that low.
He also played great defense 🔑 ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/3RRDOJGYaV
— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) February 28, 2021
As early as the next season, it was quickly realized that immediate stardom would not be attainable and that there would be growing pains as he progressed through his mid-20s.
In 2021, he played just 96 games as he struggled with injuries, but he displayed athleticism and the same highlight-reel defense at third to which we’d soon become accustomed. A fall from grace to an 85 wRC+ and just six homers could all be blamed on the sophomore slump and the injuries he faced, so the hype didn’t die down much as the baseball world prepared for 2022.
I, for one, was a member of the hype train that decided 2022 would be the year Hayes finally put everything together to become the face of the Pirates franchise. He had burgeoning power, under-appreciated speed, and would maintain his spot on the field and in the middle of the lineup because of his glove and the lack of offense surrounding him in the lineup.
#Pirates Ke'Bryan Hayes was 9/10 on the base paths last year in just 96G
Top of the order spot and has a great hit tool (91.5% Z-Contact). Power is not a strength but will be serviceable. Should be fully healthy heading into 2022. No reason to be out if you were in entering 2021 pic.twitter.com/EhHJwQcBxh
— Mike Kurland (@Mike_Kurland) January 22, 2022
Little did I know, he’d disappoint once again. A full and healthy season of 136 games allowed him to put his wheels on display, as he swiped 20 bags, but nothing else came together. He improved his wRC+ by just one point and hit just one more tater despite playing in 40 more games than he did in the previous year. There was a silver lining though.
It was easy to see what was holding him back. Mixed feelings accompanied the realization that his shortcomings were so obvious. On one hand, he had a clear path to improving, but on the other hand, he wouldn’t improve without making that much-needed alteration.
The lede has been buried enough. Hayes was plagued by ground balls. He hit so many balls on the ground, it prevented him from being an impact major league hitter. If he were to ever attain his potential at the plate, he’d need to lift the ball more. As everyone knows, you have to hit the ball over the fence on the fly to be credited with a home run.
Hayes hit the ball on the ground well above the major league average of about 45%. In 2021, his ground ball rate (GB%) was north of 56%. In 2022, it improved, but only slightly, to above 49%. Meanwhile, his fly ball rate increased only three percent as those ground balls turned into line drives.
Hitters with HH% >45% & BRL<5% in 2022 (Min 500 PA)
Hayes hits the ball hard, but too much of that is on the ground (91 mph EV on GB, 49.6% GB rate)
If he can decrease his GB%, .270/15+/20 is possible.
— Eric Cross (@EricCross04) January 2, 2023
This is a problem that has become well-known in the days of advanced metrics and is common among hitters who fail to reach their potential. Most notably, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was a victim of the ground ball. Across his first two seasons, he hit the ball on the ground more than 51% of the time and suffered the consequences, causing many to doubt the potential he had built during his time destroying the minor leagues. The fruits of lifting the ball revealed themselves in 2021 as he lowered his GB% below 45% and had an MVP-caliber campaign.
2021 is the year Vladdy became a superstar. pic.twitter.com/T7T5wUCcpW
— MLB (@MLB) November 10, 2021
Yandy Díaz was also in the same boat. Whereas Vladdy built his hype in the minors, Diaz built his hype in the gym, showcasing biceps rarely seen in baseball. For years, Díaz never lived up to his obvious power potential because he couldn’t get the ball in the air. We’ve witnessed a tale exhibiting how important avoiding the infield dirt can be for hitters attempting to hit for more power, and it’s been perfectly encapsulated by Díaz’s 2023 campaign.
The baseball world had all but given up on Díaz ever putting his biceps to good use after six years of sub-15 home run totals and ISOs below the league average. As a collective, we’d come to terms with the fact that Díaz would be a great hitter because of his contact ability and his impressive plate discipline, but that he’d never take that next step by incorporating power into his game. Even the Rays, the gurus of helping players reach their fullest potential, couldn’t get their magic to work on Díaz.
However, as the season got underway, we witnessed something amazing. Díaz was finally hitting the ball in the air. The most incredible part was that it played out exactly how we thought it would. Díaz crushed 12 homers in the first two months of 2023 after topping out at 14 in any previous season. He hit the ball on the ground less than 46% of the time and blasted fly balls more than 35% of the time. He did that all while maintaining his established skills of contact and plate discipline. Díaz was finally reaching his fullest potential and seemed destined to be a part of the AL MVP conversation by the end of the year.
Yandy Díaz grand slam!
His 10 homers are already more than he had all of last season 😳 pic.twitter.com/TGISN40WUk
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) May 13, 2023
Unfortunately, Díaz reverted to his old self over the next three months. His GB% ballooned to almost 56%, his fly ball rate (FB%) tumbled under 24%, and his home run production dissipated as he hit just five bombs.
Between both Guerrero Jr. and Díaz, we’ve gotten a glimpse at the immense impact fixing an obvious flaw in hitting the ball on the ground too often could have. It gave us hope that, someday, Hayes would also make that change.
Surprisingly, that’s exactly what happened to start the year. Hayes mirrored Díaz’s improvements, dropping his GB% below 44% while growing his FB% to greater than 37%. Weirdly enough, it didn’t come with the same effects we saw with the other two similar right-handed hitters. Hayes batted just .254 (298 PA) with only five homers and an 82 wRC+. His change in approach went completely under the radar, but there was something bubbling.
The five long balls were underwhelming, but they were just two shy of his career-high and he had Statcast metrics (most notably a 46.9% HardHit%) that suggested he was producing better quality of contact as well. Just as the analysts would start to make their annual checks on players who could have more productive second halves, disaster struck.
An injury-plagued player in the past, Hayes would once again hit the IL, this time with lower-back discomfort. After a two-week IL stint, Hayes returned for just one game before heading right back to the IL with the same injury from which he apparently hadn’t yet recovered.
It wouldn’t be until August 2nd that we’d witness Hayes’ return, but little did we know he’d come back as a different man altogether.
It took him a few days to get accustomed to hitting in the big leagues once again, but once he did, he announced himself with a bang. Hayes crushed three balls over the wall in a four-game span and made it clear he wasn’t the slap hitter he was in previous campaigns. He’s maintained that level of production throughout the month of August.
KE CLEARS THE DECK!! pic.twitter.com/5NyKRNEr28
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) August 8, 2023
Since returning from the IL on August 2nd, Hayes has slashed .320/.369/.588 with a 152 wRC+ to go with, most notably, six home runs. That total for the month is just one shy of his career-high for a full season entering this year. I bet you can guess what his batted-ball metrics looked like during August. His GB% was below 39% and his FB% was above 42%. As he hit the ball in the air more often and maintained his batted ball quality (57.7% HardHit%), his Barrel rate rose to 10.3%.
That drastic change was not only clearly a result of a focus on lifting the ball more but also put him back on the path to stardom. It took a while, but the changes to his approach paid off as he’s now a league-average hitter for the season. Best of all, he’s maintained his ability to make plays at third while throwing in a handful of stolen bases for good measure.
GUESS WHO pic.twitter.com/Ih3c0k4zx3
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) August 30, 2023
Fantasy managers have likely been scooping up Hayes off the waiver wire since he started hitting homers early this month, but many are likely unaware that this breakout has been brewing since the year began. His newfound ability to hit the ball in the air also lends credence to the idea that this level of play is sustainable. If Hayes keeps this up through September, he’ll send his draft stock soaring as more people dive into the numbers and realize that he’s made the change for which we’ve all been waiting.
Once this season ends, the hardest part begins. Hayes will need to maintain these improvements throughout the offseason while preparing his body to withstand the grind of a six-month campaign. If he can do that, this August may just be the appetizer. 2024 will be the main course as Hayes breaks out in full with a 20+ homer season that pushes his WAR totals into All-Star territory.
Congratulations on breaking out.
Keep up the hard work.