If you’re not familiar with Hayes already, I suggest you start here. Before I read this blog entry, all I knew about Hayes was his stat line, that he was a sidearmer, and that he was not drafted out of college. After I read his AFL blog – and stopped laughing – I knew that this was a guy I needed to talk to. (Here’s another interview he gave, with Lisa Winston at mlb.com.)
As it turns out, the interview went better than I could have possibly expected. I knew this was going to be something special when, after he said he preferred “Angels and Demons” to “The Da Vinci Code” (a sentiment I agree with, not that anyone asked), I practically dared him to come up with an ambigram in his response – then nearly coughed up a lung when he did. (Although a little internet sleuthing reveals that his ambigram is suspiciously similar to the one you can create on this website. I’m on to you, Chris.)
If you’re not rooting for Hayes to make it, you don’t have a heart. It’s not just that he’s a Royal (though that helps) and that he’s a funny guy – it’s that he’s so normal. The guy is one of us.
Hayes had to walk on to make his college team – the not-exactly-CWS-bound Northwestern Wildcats. He served as the last man on the bench for two years, and didn’t get any regular playing time until he was a senior. He has a degree in computer science. He never got drafted. He has trouble breaking 80 on a radar gun. I’m willing to bet that a few readers here have a more distinguished amateur career than Hayes did, and I imagine that more than a few of you had more velocity on your fastball once upon a time.
Part of what has allowed baseball to maintain its grip on American culture for nearly a century and a half is that by its very nature, the game seems accessible to the average person. Even at its highest level, the game is played by people who, to the untrained eye, look no different than you or I. Basketball players are freakishly tall, football players are freakishly big. Baseball players can win MVP awards when they’re listed at 5’9”, 180 pounds, like Dustin Pedroia, and in reality he’s probably shorter than that.
Hayes takes that everyman image one step further. Pedroia may look normal, but obviously he has extraordinary skills lurking under the surface, the skills which allow him to swat 95-mph fastballs for home runs despite his small frame. Hayes looks normal – 6’1”, 195 pounds, nothing special for a pitcher – and he complements that normal appearance with commonplace ability. He doesn’t look like he throws hard because he can’t throw hard. We all have a brother or a friend or a high school classmate who could have done what Hayes did - or at least it's tantalizingly easy to think they could have.
Dan Quisenberry famously said, “I found a delivery in my flaw,” and like Quiz, Hayes owes his path to the majors to the very ordinariness of his talents. If he threw 88 mph overhand, he might have fashioned a decent college career, been a late-round draft pick, and endured a brief and painful minor league career. Instead, he threw 79, and that forced him to get creative. Necessity is the mother of inventive deliveries.
Hayes isn’t just one of us, he’s One Of Us: he’s a baseball stat geek too. A year ago Brian Bannister became an internet sensation for speaking about DIPS theory and about how he tried to use his knowledge to overcome it. (Of course, a year ago Bannister was coming off a season where his BABIP was .262; in 2008 his BABIP was .310 – ten points higher than the pitching staff as a whole – and it’s clear that he’s going to have to work with DIPS theory – by, say, increasing his strikeout rate, which he did last year – to sustain major league success.) Hayes shows the same awareness of sabermetric analysis and the same determination to use it to his advantage.
Bannister’s intelligence contributes to his success, but you’re still talking about a guy who touches 90, a guy was a seventh-round draft pick out of USC. Hayes is Bannister minus 10 mph, but with better minor league numbers (granted, as a reliever). You have to respect that.
But does that makes Hayes a prospect? More on that in my next column. Mind you, I wouldn’t have wasted this much time talking to (and about) him if I didn’t think he was.