PITTSBURGH — For all the praise that Ke’Bryan Hayes has received in the past week, the spotlight is not the space where he typically resides. He’s naturally laid back, low key, content to let his game play the role of orator. And thus far, Hayes’ game has done a lot of talking.
In four full games, not including his injury-shortened Opening Day cameo, Hayes has already begun to live up to his new eight-year, $70 million extension — and then some. His defense is as superlative as ever. He’s striking pitches with force. The season is still in its infancy, but after receiving a deal that effectively anointed him the face of the franchise, Hayes is certainly looking the part — even more so after going 4-for-4 with one RBI and two runs in the Pirates’ 6-2 win over the Cubs on Wednesday at PNC Park.
“The one thing that stands out about [Ke’Bryan] is that he can impact the game in all three facets,” manager Derek Shelton said on Tuesday. “He can impact the game offensively, he can impact the game on the bases, and obviously, he can impact the game defensively. That’s one of the reasons we feel so strongly about him.”
What has stood out — what may always stand out — with Hayes is the defense. His reputation as a glovesmith is already established. So far, Hayes is fielding just about everything that enters his galaxy. The difficult looks routine. The routine looks boring.
In St. Louis during the Pirates’ season-opening series, he had enough highlights to supply an entire month.
There was the smart yet bold play to nab Tyler O’Neill at the plate.
There was the slow roller off O’Neill’s bat that he handled with perfection.
There was the diving grab of Paul DeJong’s line drive.
That Nolan Arenado, the National League’s Gold Glove Award recipient at third base in every season since he debuted in 2013, was on hand to witness the breadth of Hayes’ talent was poetic.
“When you watch him play defense, he’s one of the better defenders in the league,” said Pirates infielder Josh VanMeter. “Obviously, you’ve got Nolan Arenado in this division, and I think [Hayes] can be there. He’s already really, really good. I think he’s going to give Nolan a run for his money.”
If Hayes caused agony in St. Louis for his defense, he earned adoration in Pittsburgh. On Tuesday afternoon, when Hayes’ extension became official, he picked Clint Frazier’s 95.9 mph one-hopper out of the dirt, then provided a perfect feed to Diego Castillo at second base to start a double play. It was not an easy play. Hayes made it look as though it were.
“What he does over there is different than almost everybody else on the planet,” Shelton said Tuesday.
Entering play Wednesday, Hayes already had a league-leading three defensive runs saved in four full games. That pace won’t hold, but maybe it wouldn’t be shocking if Hayes takes a run at Andrelton Simmons’ record of 41 defensive runs saved in 2017. Regardless of how the numbers shake out, Hayes’ teammates are learning first-hand the extent of his talents.
“I think he’s kind of a one-of-one,” said starter Zach Thompson, who pitched four solid innings Wednesday before a line drive struck his back in the fifth and knocked him from the game. “He’s a priceless guy to have behind you. That’s someone that you can really have a ton of confidence in, knowing that anything that’s hit on that side of the infield that he’s going to make that play.”
Added catcher Andrew Knapp: “It’s almost automatic. Every time it’s hit over there, you just assume an out, which is a great feeling.”
There’s also the matter of his early returns at the plate. With his four-hit game Wednesday, the second of his career, Hayes is 9-for-18 with two doubles, two RBIs and one steal. That level of production, of course, won’t hold, either. Hayes has been the recipient of a little batted-ball luck — he has had several well-struck grounders deflect off infielders that counted as hits. But as important as the hits is the quality of contact.
So far, Hayes’ average exit velocity is 92.6 mph. His average exit velocity last season was 90.2 mph. Exit velocity is not the be all, end all. But after an injury-riddled sophomore season in which he was a below-average hitter, the loud contact is plenty encouraging.
“I don’t really try to chase hits or anything. I just try to chase hard contact,” Hayes said. “I just try to hit the ball hard every time, and whatever happens from there, happens.”