Nice catch, Hayes: Curve 3B one of best ever in EL

Ke’Bryan Hayes just might be the best defensive third baseman in the history of the Eastern League.

That’s quite a hefty statement, sure, but the Curve’s highly impressive 21-year-old prospect has the numbers to back it up. The only problem comes when trying to find historical numbers to compare with Hayes’ stats.

“He’s the best young third baseman that I’ve ever laid eyes on,” manager Michael Ryan said Friday night following a 3-1 loss to Richmond at Peoples Natural Gas Field that snapped the Curve’s five-game winning streak.

Hayes’ fielding percentage this season is .976, best in all the minor leagues for a third baseman. He has just six errors in 108 games and is well on his way to earning his second straight minor league Gold Glove award at third.

But there’s much more.

Curve broadcaster Trey Wilson did some nifty research that uncovered Hayes has the highest fielding percentage (minimum 75 games) of any EL third baseman since at least 1959. That’s as far back as reliable defensive stats go.

Historical records in the minors can be extremely difficult to come by, and while the Eastern League is more than 100 years old, you’d be hard pressed to find any third baseman who had fewer than six errors playing at least 108 games.

Why? Well, infield defense just wasn’t stressed as much that long ago in the minors, not to mention that playing surfaces consisted of choppy infields that would have made life more difficult for infielders.

So, while there’s no way to know for sure, if Hayes can navigate the Curve’s final 11 games without an error, he would have as good of a claim as anyone for putting together the best defensive season at third in EL history.

“My mom was telling me something about it, but at the end of the day I don’t really look at it,” Hayes said of his record pace. “I just try to go out there and make every play, and if I’m able to set a record or something, then that’s crazy.

“If I’m able to do it, it will be pretty special since it’s been so long.”

Hayes was selected to the EL end of season All-Star team Friday, and last week he, of course, was named the EL’s best defensive third baseman by Baseball America. He wasn’t alone on that list as Curve second baseman Stephen Alemais and first baseman Will Craig also were selected best at their positions.

All of them together have helped make this the best defensive team in Curve history. By far.

Altoona has committed only 72 errors in 127 games and will obliterate the franchise record for fewest errors of 105, set each of the past two years.

“These guys put the work in, they take pride in their defense, they can separate the offense and defense,” Ryan said. “It just shows how talented of a group they are, how they work together.”

Not to take anything away from the rest of the Curve defenders, but Hayes is in a category of his own.

He’s sensational, and has the look of a multi-Gold Glove winner in the major leagues down the road.

“I get to see it first hand every night,” Ryan said. “Watching him every night, I knew there wasn’t many balls that he didn’t make plays on. I’ve said this all year, you knew just from what you heard just how good he was defensively, but to see it with your own eyes is impressive.”

What makes Hayes so good?

“Anticipation, knowing where the ball’s going to be hit,” Ryan said before continuing with a litany of other elements. “He has an idea of swing path from hitters. He plays bad hops into easy plays. He’s got the slow heartbeat. He knows where he’s going to go with the baseball. Baseball IQ is off the charts. The instincts and what he can do, you can’t teach. It’s just something that he has.”

Hayes knew right from the get go in pro ball what he needed to do to excel at third.

“A big thing for me from whenever I got drafted was my first step, I wanted to get better at my first step,” he said. “Really just my first step decision making, whether I’m going in to my left, whether I want to create space and move back a little bit for a better hop.”

Hayes’ father, Charlie, was a 14-year major leaguer who played more than 1,300 games at third base. He even caught the final out of the World Series when the Yankees won it in 1996.

One thing Charlie did with younger Ke’Bryan was force him to play numerous positions, not just focus on third base.

“My first travel ball team I played third and a little outfield,” Ke’Bryan said. “As I got older and started playing with my dad, he moved me everywhere — I played a little bit of short, second.

“Whenever you’re young, like 8, 9, 10 years old, you want to play everywhere because you never know what your body’s going to do, how it’s going to mature and all that. He wanted me to be familiar with all the positions.”

There shouldn’t be any more position switches for Hayes, not with how terrific he is at third. As long as he continues to develop offensively, he could wind up being the Pirates’ everyday third baseman for much of the next decade.

Hayes isn’t just a one dimensional prospect, either. He’s hitting .278 with seven homers, 38 RBIs and a .794 OPS, plus he’s walked 52 times compared to 79 strikeouts. Again, all of that is from a 21-year-old in Double-A.

The 2015 first-round draft pick is the Pirates’ No. 2 prospect, according to MLB.com, as well as the No. 5 third base prospect in the minors and 53rd overall.

Of any player on this year’s Curve team, Hayes has perhaps the best chance to be a standout major leaguer for a long time. He’s already major league ready defensively, and he’s shown enough offensively at such a young age to project that he’ll handle that part of the big leagues.

He will always be compared to his father, so Ke’Bryan couldn’t help but smile when asked if he will be better than his dad defensively.

“I want to be,” he said. “He did it in the major leagues, so one day. I think I am right now. I always tell him I’m going to be better than him.”

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: 2B Ryan Howard went 2-for-3 with an RBI, run and walk for Richmond.

Key play: The Flying Squirrels scored two runs in the third for a 3-0 lead, capped by a triple from Caleb Gindl that scored Howard.

Key stat: The Curve’s five-game winning streak was snapped, but they remain only half a game out of first place.

SUBHD: How they scored

Top 2nd: Dobson solo homer (0-1).

Top 3rd: Rodriguez doubled, scored on Howard single (0-2); Gindl triple scored Howard (0-3).

Bottom 8th: Reynolds singled, scored on Hill single (1-3).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: Akron lost to Harrisburg on Friday, so the Curve are still just half a game behind the RubberDucks for first place in the Western Division. Harrisburg is seven games behind Altoona, and the Curve’s magic number to clinch a playoff spot is four.

SAFE AT FIRST: The Curve had a lot of opportunities Friday but stranded 11 runners while scoring just once, on an RBI single by RF Logan Hill in the eighth.

STEALING SECOND: RHP Dusten Knight (4-0) won in relief for Richmond, and RHP Sam Wolff earned his fifth save. RHP Dario Agrazal (5-4) took the loss, giving up three runs on eight hits over six innings, striking out six with one walk.

ROUNDING THIRD: SS Cole Tucker went 3-for-5 for the Curve, while Hill and CF Bryan Reynolds had two hits apiece.

HEADING HOME: The teams will play a doubleheader today beginning at 4 p.m., making up a rainout from May 16.

— Cory Giger

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