BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — Ke’Bryan Hayes thought the call might come last September with the Pittsburgh Pirates in a free fall. It didn’t and, yeah, it bothered the third base prospect more than a little.
“I just used it as motivation for this offseason going back home,” Hayes said recently. “They told me what they wanted me to work on so, just went home, prepared for this year.”
Namely, fine-tuning his approach at the plate after his sprint through the minors stalled a bit last summer at Triple-A Indianapolis. His .263 batting average was the lowest of his still young professional career as he ran into pitchers who — like Hayes — were on the cusp. His strikeout total ticked up. His walks ticked down. His patience was tested.
“It’s just learning to hit hard/soft,” Hayes said. “To hit 95 mph fastballs and then hit breaking balls because they were throwing them in weird counts, because they were trying to get to the major leagues too.”
The work Hayes put in over the offseason is showing promising results. The 23-year-old entered Monday hitting .318 with a double, a home run and five walks against three strikeouts through the first two weeks of spring training. While he will still likely start 2020 in Triple-A with Colin Moran and Erik Gonzalez at the top of the organization’s depth chart, Hayes will almost certainly follow in his father’s footsteps and reach the majors this season.
Not that Hayes is trying to get ahead of himself. Charlie Hayes — who played 14 years for seven teams and memorably recorded the final out of the 1996 World Series with the New York Yankees — told his son there’s no use getting caught up in playing the “what if?” game.
“You have to just be where your feet are,” said Ke’Bryan, born three months after his father’s triumph with the Yankees. “That’s one thing they stressed with me, and that my dad’s always stressing since I’ve been in the minor leagues. Just figure out what you can do every day to get better somehow. If you do that, all that ahead, it’ll come when it’s time.”
It’s nearly here. The Pirates are in the midst of an organizational reboot after finishing last in the NL Central. The new regime helmed by general manager Ben Cherington is putting an emphasis on defense and run prevention, a tack that plays into Hayes’ favor. He’s already won three Gold Gloves in the minors and committed just three errors in 265 chances in Indianapolis last season. His arm is strong and his instincts are solid thanks in large part to Charlie, who spent well over a decade in the majors despite being a career .262 hitter.
“He emphasized defense whenever I was real young, I’m talking 8-9 years old,” Hayes said. “He always said ‘Don’t let defense be the reason why you’re not on the field.’ I just always worked on it as much as I could.”
Polite and soft-spoken, Hayes doesn’t view the equally reticent Moran as a road block in the way but someone to lean on.
“Whenever we’re out there, we’re just picking each other’s brain,” Hayes said. “He talks. I might even be more quiet than him, maybe. There’s no bad blood there. We’re just going out and competing every day. The way I look at it is I’m not only competing with him, I’m competing with third basemen across the league.”
Good, because the Pirates expect him to be part of the foundation of the next wave the organization hopes carries the club back into contention. Hearing Cherington and first-year manager Derek Shelton talk about run prevention and the need to be solid in the field perked Hayes’ ears up.
“We’re bringing that old school baseball, defense wins games and stuff,” Hayes said. “I’m just going to continue to get better defensively to help my game when it’s time to go up there.”
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