Ke’Bryan Hayes Is Almost Elevating

Ke'Bryan Hayes
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If we’ve written it once, we’ve written it a hundred times: Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes is a solid player, but if he could just figure out how to hit the ball in the air, he’d be a star. Well, here we are in June 2023, and it appears that Hayes has finally started elevating the ball some.

Ke’Bryan Hayes Rises Up

Year 2022 2023 Change
GB% 49.6 44.4 -5.2
GB/FB 1.71 1.18 -0.53
LA 5.3 12.5 +7.2
Barrel% 3.9 7.0 +3.1
wRC+ 88 85 -3

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

For the second season in a row, Hayes has knocked at least five percentage points off his groundball rate, increased his hard-hit rate and average exit velocity, and more than doubled his launch angle. And for the second season in a row, his overall performance at the plate has stayed almost exactly the same. Let me say this very clearly: We were wrong. We are so sorry. We will work to do better in the future. Let’s take a look at what exactly Hayes has been doing to make liars out of us.

Before we dive into the batted ball profile, Hayes’ plate discipline has been trending in the wrong direction. He’s making more contact, but he’s chasing more and swinging at fewer pitches in the zone. While he could stand to be more aggressive at the plate, that’s not the way to go about it. As a result, he’s cut about three points off both his walk rate and his strikeout rate. That’s not exactly a wash. Last year, when Hayes didn’t put the ball in play, his wOBA was .209. This year, it’s .154. In short, it’s more important than ever he produces when he makes contact.

Ke’Bryan Hayes on Contact

Year 2022 2023 Change
wOBACon .333 .345 +12
xwOBACon .347 .376 +29

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

His balls in play have been more productive, but not by very much. His wOBA on contact is up 12 points, and his xwOBA on contact is up 29 points. Maybe he’s been a bit unlucky, but we’re talking about a player who, at least in theory, just sewed up the greatest hole in his game, and did so while hitting the ball harder than ever. Why isn’t he off to the races? Because that hole has not, in fact, been sewn up.

We’re not the liars; Hayes’ launch angle is the liar. While the fact that a player’s launch angle doesn’t tell the whole story is not necessarily a surprise, Hayes’ launch angle is a particularly cunning fabulist.

In nearly every quadrant of the zone and against nearly every pitch type, Hayes has increased his launch angle dramatically. Although it might appear that Hayes is simply following M.O.P.’s timeless advice, that’s far from the whole story. Take a look at his 10 hardest-hit balls of the season so far.

Ke’Bryan Hayes Hardest Hit Balls

Date Pitch EV LA Distance Result
May 2 Sinker 113.1 -2° 31 Groundball Single
April 13 Sinker 111.3 -1° 41 Groundout to Second
June 5 Four-Seamer 110.4 -10° 12 GIDP to Second
May 22 Slider 109.5 16° 356 Line Drive Double
April 2 Cutter 109.5 -6° 19 Groundout to First
April 16 Four-Seamer 109.3 58 Groundout to Short
June 19 Four-Seamer 109.1 89 Groundout to Second
April 17 Sinker 108.7 83 Groundball Single
June 5 Sinker 108.5 -10° 11 Groundball Single
April 18 Four-Seamer 108.5 -16° 7 Groundout to Short

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

There isn’t a fly ball in the bunch. Only one of these balls had a launch angle above 3° or traveled more than 89 feet in the air. Most of them had a negative launch angle. I could keep going with the fun facts: Only three made it past the pitcher’s mound on the fly. Only three of these balls that he absolutely demolished made it to the outfield at all!

Last year, Hayes’ ground ball rate was the 17th highest in baseball. This year it’s the 61st. That’s a big improvement, but when Hayes really squares the ball up, he’s still very much hitting it on the ground. Here’s another way to look at things:

Ke’Bryan Hayes Launch Angle

Batted Ball Type 2022 2023 Change
Groundball -17.9 -10.1 +7.8
Line Drive 14.7 15.4 +0.7
Fly Ball 35.8 35.3 -0.5
Popup 65 63.1 -1.9

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Hayes is hitting fewer groundballs, but that’s only driving half of the increase in his launch angle. The other half is coming from the fact that he’s not beating those grounders straight down into the earth the way he used to. As a result, his performance on grounders has improved considerably. Unfortunately, his fly balls have performed worse than they did last year.

Ke’Bryan Hayes wOBA

Batted Ball Type 2022 2023 Change
Groundball .239 .287 +48
Line Drive .613 .615 +2
Fly Ball .276 .247 -29

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

There’s a simple explanation for that: Hayes has a tendency to hit his fly balls and line drives to center field, and air balls do the least damage in the big part of the ballpark. As a result, his wOBA tends to underperform his xwOBA dramatically. This year, 41% of Hayes’ air balls went to center, up from 38% last year, and his wOBA on them is .429, 85 points below his .514 xwOBA.

It’s probably time to acknowledge that launch angle isn’t the only thing holding Hayes back. So far this year, 152 players have hit at least 40 fly balls. Hayes is one of just 14 whose fly ball wOBA is worse than their groundball wOBA. With the exception of wizards like Luis Arraez and Jeff McNeil, who can seemingly shoot grounders toward whichever hole they choose, that’s not a list you want to be on. As Nathaniel Grimm noted when writing about Hayes in May, “Good power hitters are aggressive during the pitch.” Unless Hayes can go out and pull the ball more or find a way to tap into his power when he’s elevating the ball, limiting his groundball rate can only help him so much.

This is a story about how launch angle can be misleading, but it’s also a story about how insanely low Hayes’ launch angle used to be. Although the changes in his batted ball profile aren’t enough to turn him into the star that we all hope he’ll become, they’re all steps in the right direction. This is the third year in a row that they’ve trended that way. I know I had a lot of fun with Hayes’ 10 hardest-hit balls of the year, but his launch angle on hard-hit balls is still 6.4° higher than it was last year, and 5% more of his hard-hit balls were in the air this year. He’s also tightened up the standard deviation of his launch angle by nearly 3°. Hayes needs to be a bit more aggressive, but the rest of us might just need a bit more patience.

Thank you to reader 20longyears, who noted Hayes’ increased launch angle during Ben Clemens’ chat last week.

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