Ke’Bryan Hayes has been praised for his defense since being drafted as a supplemental first rounder out of high school in 2015.
You could chalk that up to initial hype, as not every prospect lives up to their draft scouting grades. I could tell you about how Hayes lived up to the defensive hype in the eyes of scouts — including this writer, who covered him from day one in the minors.
I could also simply point to the stats. This year, Hayes ranks as one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. He ranks first in Defensive Runs Saved (20), third in UZR/150 (5.4), and is second overall in the FanGraphs rankings.
This isn’t new. If you look at the last two seasons, Hayes has 36 defensive runs saved since the start of 2021. That is 13 more than runners up Nolan Arenado and Ryan McMahon.
Nolan Arenado is an amazing defender. So is Ryan McMahon. They both have 23 DRS over the last two seasons. That’s about a win per season saved from their defense alone — and that win is in addition to what the average defender would generate.
Hayes not only has outperformed these two, but has done it with less playing time. He has 1777 innings since the start of 2021 and has averaged almost an extra win per year over Arenado (2355.2 innings) and McMahon (1932 innings).
Even if we go back to 2020, Hayes leads the group. He doesn’t even show up on the qualified leaderboards, because he had one month of playing time in 2020. He added 4 DRS to his total in that month.
Ke’Bryan Hayes has lived up to his defensive hype.
This season, he’s matching pace with Arenado, who is in his age 31 season. Hayes is in his age 25 season, and has been just as good as Arenado since he entered the league.
I could break down the numbers further and find ways for Hayes to improve defensively, to the point where Arenado isn’t in the discussion. I could probably tie in the sunflower seed argument if I wanted, adding a moral high ground to stand upon as I say that the defense we’ve seen from Ke’Bryan Hayes needs some form of improvement.
It does not.
Ke’Bryan Hayes can do whatever he wants on defense.
The sunflower seed play wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad. It was irrelevant.
In that irrelevant play, we got a chance to see how the mind of Hayes works. As I broke down in my Twitter thread, he’s almost subconsciously multitasking by going to his pocket for seeds. His glove is back on by the time Escobar is rounding third. The runner stopped at first, and Hayes was studying the entire field while he was reloading his sunflower seeds.
The biggest argument I could see being valid is that Hayes should have at least run to third, in the event that Escobar slipped, or the runner at first somehow advanced on a wild throw. My thought is that Hayes could cover that ground before Escobar got up off the ground, or before the runner rounded second. I think ultimately we’re talking about odds that are way less than 1% of Hayes being in the play.
I think Hayes knew that from the start.
Someone with the reaction time to do this…
…would recognize instantly when he’s not going to be involved in a play that he — checks notes — wasn’t involved in.
The bigger thought is that we shouldn’t question how Ke’Bryan Hayes conserves his focus.
How do we know that the split second plays he makes aren’t because he conserves his energy during plays like this where he knows he won’t be involved? Would he still make a play like the one above if his routine was mindlessly running to third base every batter, all to check a box for angry fans?
Again, this is the best defensive third baseman in the game. He will be that way for years.
I don’t question his methods when he’s in his zone on the field.
Endy Rodriguez Can Multitask, Too
On Sunday, I highlighted the defensive skills from Endy Rodriguez in the Pirates DVR.
What has impressed me about Rodriguez’s defense behind the plate is how smooth his throwing transition is. In that video, you can see him multitasking on the field. I’ll link the video here for reference, but you should check out the DVR for home runs from Blake Sabol, Connor Scott, and Brendt Citta.
Perfect throws from Endy 😍🔥 pic.twitter.com/r7UrpuO0Rx
— Altoona Curve (@AltoonaCurve) September 17, 2022
You can see Rodriguez doing two things at once. He’s actively receiving an 88-MPH pitch down the middle, while actively transitioning his body into position for the throw to second. The moment the runner breaks, he shifts into a mode where he manipulates his body in the exact way needed to make the only play to get the runner at second. Rodriguez has a 45% caught stealing since moving up to Altoona, along with his 1.120 OPS.
There’s a reason I consider Endy Rodriguez the best prospect in the Pirates’ system. This is it.
I’ve seen Rodriguez add more tasks to this process. I posted a video last month when I was in Altoona, showing how he held a runner at first, and then threw out the runner at second.
— Tim Williams (@TimWilliamsP2) August 19, 2022
I love everything about this play. Nothing gets past Rodriguez, even while his attention is divided between the batter at the plate, the pitch coming in, and the runner at first — who he can’t see as well due to the left-handed hitter. Rodriguez even had to save a pitch that was sailed over his head, while checking the runner in one motion. The next pitch was a pitchout, and a perfect throw by Rodriguez, capped off by him showing off the emotions by slamming down his helmet.
That same trip, I saw Rodriguez backhand a low pitch and still make the throw to second. He did something similar in the next video, getting the runner just in time:
The fifth runner thrown out by Endy Rodriguez in 11 games behind the dish in Double-A🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/oPnyrjh93Y
— Altoona Curve (@AltoonaCurve) August 28, 2022
The point I’m trying to make here is that I’ve seen enough from Endy Rodriguez to know that his mind is capable of seeing the entire field with the ease that most players can only dream about.
He will be the catcher of the future in Pittsburgh.
Henry Davis might split time, at best.
The reason I say this is simply a testament to Rodriguez. He has whole field awareness, and the ability to snap into focus and manipulate his body to make the impossible play in a split second. He works on auto-pilot, and has looked very good defensively behind the plate.
He has the same ability that Ke’Bryan Hayes has at third base.
I highlight this more to illustrate what good defensive skills look like, than to highlight the sunflower seed play.
This is Bigger Than Hayes
What I hated about the sunflower seed situation is that the Pirates have very little going right at the big league level.
The defense from Ke’Bryan Hayes is one of the few bright spots.
It has become a trend for analysts around the league — typically former big league players — to take shots at the Pirates this year. This was the latest case.
Todd Zeile is a former big league third baseman. He obviously has a ton of knowledge about the game. He could dispel that knowledge and explain this situation in a deeper way, to show what is happening from a baseball sense.
Instead, he chose to go for the layup and take an easy shot at the Pirates. It’s not his job to break down the defensive prowess of Ke’Bryan Hayes. It’s his job to create content for Mets fans — and laughing at the best defensive third baseman in the game after a win is great content for Mets fans.
Typically in this situation, Pittsburgh media and fans will adopt the outside take. The Pirates are a horrible team right now, and they’ve been horrible for the better part of decades. If you attach any small instance to that fact, you find a new reason to complain about an old problem.
This specific situation shows how ridiculous this trend is.
Ke’Bryan Hayes is the best player on the team.
You can take a purist stance to justify anger at Hayes, in order to pile on the anger about the overall organization. All this does is makes Ke’Bryan Hayes answer for a problem that has been created over the last decade by bad management from the Nutting family.
I do think the Pirates are headed in the right direction, but they are severely behind other small market teams on the modern rebuild path, and Pittsburgh is growing impatient.
I don’t blame them.
I asked Bob Nutting prior to the 2018 season if they would take an approach similar to the one they’re taking now. Obviously, they stuck to their old approach, which Nutting made clear to me that they would do at the time. They stuck to this approach for two full seasons.
Had they made the switch in approach at that point, we probably would be watching a playoff team right now.
Instead, Nutting delayed the change from Huntington, and Huntington never changed his approach. I often wonder how much of that was due to Frank Coonelly playing an old-style President role. A key difference between then and now is that Travis Williams doesn’t provide oversight to Ben Cherington, as Coonelly did for Huntington. This organization was largely outdated, and needed a big overhaul to match what modern day successful small market teams were doing.
Unfortunately, that change for the Pirates started right when the world shut down in 2020, which further delayed things. We are just now getting to the end of the second full season of this rebuild.
Going back to those comments from Nutting ahead of the 2018 season, one thing stands out:
“We believe that we can have a more steady window of performance,” Nutting said. “That’s why this year is not a rebuild year. This year is a new direction. It’s younger players, but it’s not a three-year tank. To the extent that we need to stabilize, as opposed to have the wild fluctuations in swings, that’s a direction that we have taken.”
Their approach at the time to stabilize and not have wild fluctuations was a good thought. The reason they needed a three-year tank to get there was because they did not have the organizational structure to prevent those wild fluctuations. They weren’t going to avoid one last wild fluctuation downward. They tried, and that delayed the process.
What I’ve been seeing in my coverage of this new front office is that they are making the changes that this team obviously needed to make a few years ago.
Had they made those changes pre-2018 — and keep in mind, they had just traded Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, and were about to trade for Chris Archer that summer — then I’m certain this team would be a contender by now.
And maybe in that scenario, we wouldn’t ever be criticizing anything about the defense of Hayes. I guarantee that if Hayes were on a winning team right now (like the Mets), this action would have just been laughed off.
What sucks is that Ke’Bryan Hayes answered for this the next day. I wasn’t there and didn’t see the video, but I doubt anyone approached him with questions about his ability to multitask on the field. He was most likely approached by a crowd of reporters, asking him to explain the situation that was surrounded by criticism. And he did, even though he shouldn’t have to.
By comparison, Bob Nutting was approached by a group of reporters earlier this month, and when asked about the current state of the franchise, he dodged the question.
We spoke to Bob Nutting just now in a group setting. Asked to comment on the current state of the franchise, he said, “I really think today is a day to celebrate the Hall of Fame and I really don’t want to have anything that distracts from that or takes us away from that today.”
— Mike Persak (@MikeDPersak) September 3, 2022
It has been two weeks since that day. The Hall of Fame day was a really cool event. Nutting is right to not take away from all of the hard work that went into it.
The reason he was asked on that day was because he wasn’t available prior to that day. It’s not like he made himself available in the two weeks following. I even asked specifically for him when I went to Pittsburgh a week earlier, and was told there wouldn’t be one-on-one interviews. A week later, he met the media and dodged any questions about the current team.
The result of Nutting hiding away from questions is that those arrows are still coming in. Fans want answers, and reporters have jobs. Other teams are firing off jabs at the Pirates organization and every player inside — including the best one on the team right now. All of those players then have to answer for why this team is so bad. All of those players have to answer for every little mistake from a hometown media and fan base that is beyond rational anger at this organization.
My thought is that it would probably help Ke’Bryan Hayes if Bob Nutting put himself in front of those questions, and explained the direction of the Pirates.
Unfortunately, the plan the Pirates are on right now involves deliberately tanking by allowing for failure at the big league level.
My guess is that we will see this plan play out as I hoped a few years ago. The Pirates will start winning, and will increase their payroll — going higher this time due to keeping the 2020-2022 (and likely 2023) payrolls lower than they could have been.
I honestly don’t know which one of those statements will draw more laughs from jaded Pirates fans.
The idea that they will start winning again?
The idea that Nutting is saving money now to spend it in the future?
I can tell you that I wouldn’t be here, running this site, if I didn’t think those two things would be true.
I can also tell you that I don’t know if those two things will be true with certainty, or to what extent.
That’s the problem I see in Pittsburgh. Fans are left in the dark about where this team is heading.
I can tell you all about how the prospects are progressing, but the Pirates still haven’t shown that they can get a prospect to his MLB upside. Until that happens, Pirates fans won’t trust this highly ranked farm system.
I can tell you where I think the Pirates should boost their MLB club this offseason with outside additions. I can’t tell you if Ben Cherington will get aggressive this offseason, as he has shown no signs of that in the previous offseasons.
I can tell you that I truly believe the payroll will increase to a level higher than the $110 million ranges in 2015-2017. I can’t tell you if the increase will be significant enough to compete with other small market clubs employing this same strategy.
I don’t really have any hope to give for Pirates fans.
No one does.
Except maybe Bob Nutting.
He’s not talking.
That leaves the players to answer for every single instance that reminds Pirates fans how bad this organization has been.
That allows Todd Zeile to put the best player on the team on blast for something trivial — which I guarantee would be spun a different way if Hayes played for the Mets.
And because Pirates fans and media only know emotional reactions to outside criticism of the team, that constantly leads to a situation where people like Ke’Bryan Hayes are dealing with displaced frustrations, all because they made a tiny mistake.
When the Pirates are winning, fans won’t care about this stuff and media will have actual things to discuss.
Until they get serious about winning from the top, it shouldn’t be the players receiving the brunt of the frustrations.