[Part One of this interview appeared on Friday, February 6.]
Chris Hayes has emerged from the humblest of baseball backgrounds to the doorstep of the major leagues. A walk-on at Northwestern University, Hayes worked his way up to the team’s closer his senior year. Following graduation he spent a year in the independent leagues before signing with the Kansas City Royals as an undrafted free agent in 2006.
After two seasons with Burlington in the Low-A Midwest League, Hayes was promoted to Double-A in 2008, and responded with his best season, including a 1.64 ERA and just 49 hits and 13 walks allowed in 66 innings. His career ERA in the minors stands at 2.52, and he has allowed just seven home runs in 203 innings. After the season Hayes held his own with a stint in the Arizona Fall League, with a 4.30 ERA in 15 innings, but received less attention for his pitching than for this blog entry for mlblogs.com.
We caught up with Hayes this winter and he graciously-and occasionally seriously-shared his thoughts about throwing submarine-style, using sabermetrics to his advantage on the mound, and his similarities with a Royals reliever of years past.
RJ: Statistically speaking, the keys to your success as a pro have been primarily due to your ability to prevent home runs and walks, as your BABIP has been fairly normal. But last year your BABIP dropped substantially, allowing you to have your best season even though you had the lowest strikeout rate of your career. Do you feel that the drop in your BABIP was the result of a conscious effort on your part to do something different-you mentioned the new rise ball you threw, as well as the grips on your fastball-or was it, for lack of a more graceful term, a small-sample-size fluke?
CH: Only time will tell, I guess. I think there are a number of factors involved. My first two years I was in the same league [Low-A Midwest League] with the same team. This most recent year I was in Double-A, and the hitters are a different breed. My advantage in an at-bat is how different I am from your average pitcher. I have yet to see a professional hitter taking batting practice off a batting practice pitcher throwing submarine-style. An experienced hitter has taken a swing at a “normal” back-spinning fastball thousands of times. It’s been a while since I’ve hit, maybe it’s more like millions.
They see thousands of 90 mph-plus fastballs per season. Then, enter the “weirdo” stage right, and I throw that all upside down (literally and figuratively). A guy just out of college in A-ball may be used to guys throwing 85 mph on average, and they haven’t honed their swing as much as a more salty veteran. The higher up the levels I go, I believe the bigger advantage I have, because I’m that much different from the norm.
I also spend quite a bit of time studying hitters, their swings, and their tendencies. The smarter and more advanced the hitter, the more predictable I believe they are. Younger guys are more free-swinging and oftentimes just bat at random. I’d rather face a more experienced hitter any day. In my first two seasons, my at-bats were all over the charts. This year, I was able to get a ton of contact with two strikes, often on 0-2 or 1-2. My strikeout numbers were a bit down, because guys were more experienced and balanced, so they weren’t swinging and missing, but rather they were putting the ball in play defensively. This results in soft contact, which will ideally result in fewer hits.
The grips on my fastball allowed me to pitch more situationally than I perhaps had in the past. I was more in control of the type of contact I got in a given situation, which helped me get more double plays.
So, was the sample size small this year? Yes. Is my BABIP going to regress towards the mean next year? Maybe. It was really low this year, which I am grateful for. But if next year every inning starts with a single and immediately ends with a GIDP and a strikeout, I’ll take my chances with the terrible BABIP.
RJ: One of the biggest criticisms of side-arm pitchers is that while they tend to be very effective against same-side hitters, that they’re vulnerable to opposite-side hitters because they see the ball much more effectively. Are you aware of your platoon splits, and is there anything you consciously try to do differently to make yourself more effective against left-handed hitters?
CH: This question is near and dear to my heart. It is something I’m aware of. My first year in pro ball, I don’t remember exactly, but righties hit about .220 and lefties hit .240. Not a big gap. But the next year, I heard a lot about how I needed to focus on getting lefties out. So I focused on it, and righties again hit .220 and lefties hit .300. Way to go Hayes, right?
This year, I completely forgot about it until after the season was done, and one of my family members asked if I knew that righties hit .216 and lefties hit .215. I laughed. I guess it’s one of those things that if you focus on it being a problem, perhaps it will be. So I just plan to throw quality pitches and take my chances, regardless of which side of the plate the guy is standing on.
Over the course of my career, the one year I really focused on trying to get lefties out was the one year they had success against me. I’m confident I can get lefties out just as effectively, but I know there will always be the stigma that when a lefty comes up it’s the correct move to take a sidearmer out. I’d obviously prefer to stay in and go after the next hitter, but it’s not up to me to make those decisions, and I’m grateful to get the opportunity to throw whenever it is, and for however long it may be.
RJ: After spending the first two years of your career in the Midwest League, you skipped a level in 2008, jumped to Double-A, and had the best season of your career. What was different about your performance this year? And given that you were assigned to the Arizona Fall League this year, clearly the Royals are starting to take you seriously as a potential reliever-was there a point where you suddenly felt like you were no longer looked at as some kind of novelty act?
CH: I log everything I do as a pitcher, and have done it for years. So every offseason I study to see what I can improve on. I looked through my stats and saw that in my three years of pitching, if I could just take out one bad outing, I would have an ERA under 2.00 all three years. I gave up four runs my senior year of college in zero innings pitched, and had a five-spot in one inning pitched in ’06 and ’07 in Low-A. I still finished with ERAs right around 3.00 in those seasons, but it was one big game that really hurt me. So, this year I worked on ways to mentally have the exact same approach if I was cruising, or if the inning was going south.
Early in the 2008 season, we were up five, and with two outs and two strikes on the batter in the bottom of the ninth, I gave up a two-run home run. That was the only outing in 40 appearances all year where I gave up multiple runs. It made all the difference in the world. Minimizing the big inning was really what helped me the most statistically. I had about the same BB/9 and K/BB, with a slightly better WHIP, but for the most part it was just damage control that kept the team close in tight games, or shut the door when need be.
As far as being a novelty act, it’s hard to take yourself seriously when you throw as weird as I do. Right about when you start to get some swagger you’ll hear “You throw like a girl!” from some drunk fan upset that a softball game apparently broke out during the baseball game he paid to see. I’m confident the Royals are taking me seriously; I know I take pride in what I do and take my craft very seriously.
RJ: Like most submariners, you rely less on strikeouts for your success, and more on limiting walks and home runs. In other words, you’re the perfect foil for the Rob Deer Fan Club. Because your pitching style leads to so many balls in play, do you find yourself more concerned than the average pitcher with the quality of the defense behind you, or the positioning of your fielders.?
CH: I guess I don’t really concern myself with it too much. Everybody out here is a professional. Especially at the higher levels, guys are in the position they are supposed to be in. The only thing I can worry about is when the ball is hit to me, making those plays.
RJ: Along those same lines, DIPS theory implies that the more balls are put into play against a pitcher, the more randomness there tends to be in outcomes. Do you think that your style of pitching leaves you more subject to the vagaries of fate, where even on a day when you have your best stuff, you might be victimized by three ground balls with eyes? Is there anything you can do to tamp down on the randomness?
CH: That’s the way pitching is some times. Guys throw well and give up bloop hits, and other days they get line drives right at guys. I have had my share of bloopers and bleeders throughout the years (against Cedar Rapids in 2006, I faced five batters, gave up five ground balls and my line was 0 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 5 ER) but I really think the more experienced I get, the less randomness there is. Yeah, a guy may get a five-hopper in the hole for a hit, but if you look back at the at-bat, I’m sure there’s something where you fell behind in the count, or didn’t execute a pitch early on to get the guy out. There are always things you can learn from, even if the guy doesn’t hit it hard. I keep track of every pitch I throw, and go back and try to learn as much from the at-bats where the ball wasn’t scalded as those where the ball comes back to you shaped like a football.
RJ: You play for an owner who was the CEO of Wal-Mart, and you spent 2008 playing for a team that’s just a few miles down the road from Wal-Mart’s world headquarters in Bentonville. Were there any perks for Naturals players? Did they roll back prices a little bit more for you? Did you get an extra-special “hello!” from the door greeters?
CH: Perks? More so than you get at Wal-Mart already? That’s impossible. They already have the best prices, the friendliest people, and the best product in town. I spend my entire paycheck at Wal-Mart every month and feel like royalty even though I’m just a regular customer.
(You did say Mr. Glass is a subscriber, right?)
RJ: I didn’t say he wasn’t.
Now that you’re getting closer to the majors, do you pay more attention to some of the moves the Royals have made with their bullpen to see how that might open up an opportunity for you? Was there any pump-fisting in the Hayes household when Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez were traded?
CH: It’s easy to give the politically correct answer that you aren’t scoreboard watching, and you just have to keep playing hard and working hard and the opportunity will come some way or another. All of which is true, I know that to be the case. But it naturally does pique your interest when you hear moves like this. Obviously I think I can help out the big-league team-I wouldn’t be in the minor league system if I didn’t or the Royals didn’t-so hearing about moves like these gets me excited, because I think they will help our club.
Guys like Ramirez and Nunez were outstanding for us in the bullpen. I like to think I can help the club in some way to fill the big shoes those guys left in the bullpen though, and as a result, the team will be that much better for the guys we got on offense. Jacobs and Crisp are great players, and will help us in many ways in years to come. It’s obviously a goal to get to the big leagues, but ultimately it’s a goal of mine to win the World Series in Kansas City. More than anything, for that reason, every time our club improves, it’s exciting to me. And, of course, if it’s at the expense of creating more opportunities for guys to help out the bullpen, it’s a double bonus!
RJ: So let me get this straight: you were signed by the Royals as an undrafted free agent, you’re a submariner who throws in the 70s, you give up a lot of hits but compensate by avoiding walks and homers, and you combine a sense of humor with a passion for the written word. You were even born in the first week of February. Shouldn’t you stop delaying the inevitable and change your last name to “Quisenberry”? And would you consider changing your name if it helped your chances of getting to the majors? I promise not to divulge your secret if you don’t.
CH: Of course. I’d change it to Drabowski, or Hrabosky, Gubicza, or Biancalana for that matter.
RJ: You might want to re-consider that last one. Unless your burning ambition is really to appear on David Letterman.
CH: Yeah, you’re right. I’ve always wanted to do Oprah.
RJ: In all seriousness, it’s hard to overstate the grip that Dan Quisenberry has on Royals fans, even 20 years later. I’ve written in the past that he’s arguably the most unique player in major league history, and Joe Posnanski has written that Quiz deserves serious Hall of Fame consideration. He’s unquestionably the greatest submarine reliever of all time; only Kent Tekulve comes close.
If and when you reach the majors, you would be the first submariner to pitch for the Royals since he left. I don’t know how much (if any) video you’ve seen of Quiz, but how does your delivery and repertoire compare to his? Has anyone in the organization invoked Quisenberry’s name when seeing you pitch? I have this nagging feeling that Royals fans remember Quisenberry far more intensely and fondly than the franchise itself does.
CH: When the Royals offered me a contract, they told me to come in to the spring training offices to sign. After disobeying all traffic laws and sprinting from the parking lot, I calmly entered the building. They ushered me in to meet the staff. The first person I met said, “Oh, you’re Little Quiz,” and proceeded to tell me about how much she loved him. She said he was an amazing person, and perhaps an even better poet. He wrote her a poem during his career, and she has kept it to this day. As if 244 saves, a 2.76 career ERA, and a record five Rolaids Relief Man of the Year awards wasn’t enough to live up to. (Oh yeah, and Hayes, you may not walk many guys, but, well, Quiz has the best BB/9 in baseball since 1926.)
Great, yesterday I was applying to work at an insurance company, today I’m the little version of a man who shut the door like Rivera and painted with a finer brush than Maddux, and at the same time was equal parts Good Samaritan and Chaucer.
Over the years, I’ve tried to get as many Quiz stories as I can from pitchers like Dennis Leonard, Steve Busby, Paul Splittorff, and Jeff Montgomery, who were teammates of his and have come to visit our spring training. I have so much respect for what Quisenberry did, both on and off the field. His career speaks for itself, and I have yet to hear anyone say a negative word about him as a person. He seemed like a player that took what he did extremely seriously, and took pride in it, yet at the same time was a funny, intelligent, unique, and intriguing guy off the field. Keeping that balance is something I admire deeply.
As far as our pitching motions, from what I’ve seen (which I wish was a lot more footage, it’s just hard to find), I think I’m a little more bent over at the waist. Quiz stands upright a tiny bit more, and therefore his hand isn’t quite as low to the ground as mine. It’s interesting though, because despite that difference in the body, his arm angle is really quite similar to mine, which creates the same spin and same angles as me.
RJ: For the record, changing your name might be a little drastic, but it can’t hurt to start working on your mustache now.
CH: A reliever mustache is earned, it’s not a right. I hope some day to be lucky enough to have a beautiful, uncompromising mustache bestowed upon me. Until then, I’ll continue to enjoy my soup.
RJ: When Quisenberry was at his peak, he was as valuable for the quantity of his innings as for the quality-he threw over 125 innings five times in a six-year span. Relievers were treated differently back then, but even so, the fact that Quisenberry was so efficient with his pitches and got so many quick ground-ball outs allowed him to breeze through innings more easily. So far in your career you’ve topped out at 70 innings, albeit in a shorter minor league season. Do you think that as a submariner, you can safely throw more innings than a conventional reliever without jeopardizing your health? Do you find that you recover more quickly from an outing, and that you could pitch 70-80 times a season without a problem? I guess what I’m getting at is, do you feel like you could be used more extensively, and if so, what do you think is a reasonable limit for you over the course of a season?
CH: I am grateful that I’ve been lucky my entire career to have stayed healthy. I think my arm motion is less hazardous on the shoulder than a normal pitcher, so I usually bounce back faster. I remember a few times last year where I went four innings one night, and came back the next day and felt great. Obviously, the Royals have pitch counts in place to protect their pitchers in the minors, but I could have thrown the next night. I would rather throw every night and stay really sharp than have to sit and wait a few days. I think health-wise, it’s completely reasonable for me to throw more than 70 innings. In 2005, I threw in college, then played a season of independent ball, then went to Colombia for another season, and then went straight to spring training and played the entire 2006 season. From March ’05 to Sept ’06, I never took a break from throwing, and probably threw 150 innings combined and had no health problems.
The way many “specialists” are used in the game today, though, may dictate how many innings I’ll get in a season. You’re right, relievers don’t get nearly the innings they used to. Bradford’s career high is 77 innings pitched in his 11-year career. I love pitching; I wouldn’t be doing it for a living if I didn’t. So I’d like to pitch as much and as often as I could. The stigma is, a guy throwing the way I do will struggle against lefties, and the second time through the order. I have had success in both those situations in the past. I will have to continue to do so, and hopefully take on a higher inning load.
RJ: If you bumped into Matt Wieters at the grocery store today, do you think he’d remember your name?
CH: No, but he did ask me which aisle the Vitamin Water was on. It’s flattering to have a guy like that look up to you for advice.
RJ: And finally, here’s the question that I’m sure every Royals fan wants to know the answer to: who throws harder, you or Rowdy Hardy? And could either of you hit 90 on a radar gun one time if your life hung in the balance?
CH: I have the nickname of “Disco.” You may ask, “why Disco?” The answer, of course, is because I throw in the 70s.
As we all know, being a successful baseball player, like anything else, is all about building your brand. I thought about this long and hard, and realized nothing cool really happened in the ’80s or early ’90s. There’s really no catchy, agreed-upon nomenclature for the eras. I mean, I’m sure I could throw 91, but nicknaming myself “Too Legit To Quit” probably isn’t going to get me the endorsements and general marketability that “Disco” will.
If my life hung in the balance, I could throw overhand and easily get you a “Vogue” (’91), could perhaps mix in a “Baby Got Back” (’92), or maybe even an “All That She Wants” (’93), with a crow hop (I’m so glad you asked a question to which I could give a shout out to Ace of Base in my answer). Voluntarily throwing 10-15 mph slower is a small sacrifice to make for the myriad options “Disco” affords me, though. It’s really been paying off.
As far as Rowdy and I go, we are very good friends. Just the other day we went bowling. The match took just under seven hours. I won in a nail-biter, 1-0 in the last frame, when I successfully knocked down the 10-pin. Rowdy hit the head pin a number of times throughout the game, but could never quite hit it hard enough to get it to fall down.
RJ: I don’t know if “Disco” was really your nickname or not, but as the guy who helped make Joakim Soria the Mexicutioner, I can tell you, it is now. I hope you like listening to the Bee Gees on the way to the mound.
CH: Well, I appreciate the commitment. The Bee Gees are great, but I’m pretty attached to the Men at Work song “Down Under.” The didgeridoo and reference to the vegemite sandwich just get me every time.
RJ: “The Vegemite Sandwich” sounds like a great name for your sinker. I look forward to reading this in a game recap: “Justin Morneau singled in the seventh to send Joe Mauer to third, but Chris Hayes came in and quelled the rally, getting Michael Cuddyer to nibble at a vegemite sandwich which was tapped to shortstop for an inning-ending double play.”
CH: Wow. I’m flattered. I mean, I think my sinker is really good. But have you ever had a vegemite sandwich? A vegemite sandwich comparison is like rating something an 18 on a scale of one to 10. Or giving 120 percent effort. I feel like the vegemite sandwich is to Australia what Chuck Norris is to America. I’m sure I’d feel even more strongly about this if I had ever tried a vegemite sandwich. Or been to Australia.