PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Pirates took one of their most frustrating losses of the season Saturday.
Manager Derek Shelton pulled starting pitcher Mitch Keller after six innings, though the reigning National League Player of the Week’s pitch count was still a reasonable 84.
In came Robert Stephenson to start the seventh inning. Two batters later, the Pirates’ 3-2 lead had turned into a 4-3 deficit after Pavin Smith’s two-run home run and the Arizona Diamondbacks held on to win by that score at PNC Park.
The great Bill James has often theorized that managers usually directly impact the outcomes of about five-to-seven games a season. This was one of those for Shelton.
However, the silver lining in the loss was that all three Pirates’ runs came on one swing of Ke’Bryan Hayes’ bat. His bases-loaded triple in the third inning put the Pirates ahead 3-1 and that looked like it was going to be enough when Keller set down 16 straight Diamondbacks hitters between the first and sixth innings.
It marked the first time in Hayes’ four-year career that he had at least three RBIs in consecutive games. He had three hits and drove in three runs Friday night when the Pirates routed the Diamondbacks 13-3.
Six RBIs in two games might not suddenly vault Hayes into MVP consideration. However, it is a good sign for a talented player who has yet to hit his stride offensively, except for a torrid 24-game debut during the 2020 pandemic-shortened season.
Hayes is hitting .240/.297/.359 with one home run and 16 RBIs in 44 games this season. That is the continuation of a three-season stretch beginning in 2021 in which he has slashed .248/.312/.355 with 14 home runs in 276 games and 1,138 plate appearances.
Whenever I talk with executives, scouts, managers, coaches or broadcasters from other organizations, one of their first questions is usually about Hayes and if he is ever going to become an impact hitter.
It’s a fair question, especially with the significant sample size.
No one questions Hayes’ defense, though. He has turned into a Brooks Robinson-caliber fielder at third base. (Google him, kids). In fact, various advanced defensive metrics suggest Hayes is the best fielder in the game regardless of position.
In fact, Hayes is so good that I’d love the Pirates to give him a shot to play shortstop regularly. He has logged just five innings there in his career.
No less an expert than Jay Bell, who was the National League Gold Glove shortstop in 1993 while playing for the Pirates, believes Hayes could handle the position.
The Pirates obviously think Hayes can turn into an above-average all-around player. They signed him to an eight-year, $70-million contract last year and didn’t commit that kind of money to someone whose ceiling is a defensive specialist.
When I’m asked about Hayes’ hitting, I say I believe he will blossom into a good major-league hitter.
For openers, the 26-year-old Hayes is still a relatively young player and at an age where many hitters have breakout seasons. Secondly, he is a hard worker who spends countless hours in the batting cages.
Most of all, I’ve seen too enough flashes from Hayes to feel good about his future. And I remember what a wise scout once told me — if you’ve seen it once then you know it’s in there.
Hayes showed it Friday. Then he showed it again Saturday.
Now he needs to do it on a consistent basis.