Pirates 3B Hayes eyes smoother 2022 after rocky rookie year

Pittsburgh Pirates' Ke'Bryan Hayes, center, is called out at second after Baltimore Orioles second baseman Jahmai Jones (37) made the play during the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP)

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — Ke’Bryan Hayes spent most of 2021 dealing with an aching left wrist that forced him to miss nearly half the season. The Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman is hoping for smoother sailing in 2022.

“That was a little bit of a roller coaster for me. I had to grind through it,” said Hayes, who went on the 60-day injured list after the second game and finished the season on the 10-day IL. “Once I can be in that lineup every day, I know things can take care of themselves.”

The Pirates need the 25-year-old to be a difference-maker as they aim to escape last place in the NL Central, a spot they’ve been anchored in each of the last three seasons.

Hayes is dealing with his hand issues by making changes, experimenting with a fungo handle on his bat, and a two-handed follow-through on his swing to alleviate pressure on his wrist this spring. He’s batting .333 (4 for 12) in four Grapefruit League games.

“He dealt with a lot of stuff, injuries that can be tough for a hitter,” said Pirates All-Star center fielder Bryan Reynolds, who hit behind Hayes in the lineup last season. “If he’s healthy, he’s going to hit. He’s healthy right now and he’s starting to get his timing back down. Right now, he’s definitely on the right track to be where he wants to be.”

The son of former major leaguer Charlie Hayes made a splash in September 2020, when he slashed .376/.442/.682 with seven doubles, two triples, five home runs, and 11 RBIs in 24 games to win NL rookie of the month honors. Over his final three games, Hayes had a streak of eight consecutive hits, including three doubles in a five-hit game at Cleveland.

The instant success created a buzz for Hayes as the NL Rookie of the Year front-runner, a billing that seemed appropriate when he homered off Chicago Cubs ace Kyle Hendricks in his first at-bat on opening day at Wrigley Field last April.

The next game, however, Hayes took an awkward swing and felt a sensation shoot up his left wrist and into his hand. Hayes drew a walk against Jake Arrieta but bumped his hand sliding back to first on a pickoff play and left the game before his next at-bat.

It set the stage for a turbulent season in which he batted .257 with a .689 OPS and had 20 doubles, two triples, six homers, and 38 RBIs in 96 games. Solid to be sure, but not in line with his own expectations.

With his defense as rock-solid as ever, Hayes is hoping that’s true of his performance at the plate this year. After an offseason of rehabilitating his wrist, through soft-tissue massage and stretching exercises, he is taking extra precautions by taping it up when he plays.

While Hayes, along with Reynolds and catcher Roberto Perez, is one of the few players on the roster who doesn’t have to sweat cut down day, he’s taking nothing for granted.

“The competitor in me, I’m still playing like I’m trying to make a team,” Hayes said. “I’m just being a little smarter with it now that I’ve been through it a couple of times. I’m just really making sure my body is 100% whenever we leave spring training.”