"Disco" Hayes pitching to his own beat

With a computer science degree from Northwestern and a fastball that tops out in the 70s, professional baseball didn't seem a likely option for former NU walk-on Chris Hayes. But Hayes has used his brains – and perplexing delivery – to overcome his decided lack of brawn, and now he finds himself on the brink of the majors.

The various monikers that minor-league pitcher Chris Hayes has picked up over the years – sideshow, weirdo, circus act, etc. – start to make sense when you see Hayes execute his craft.

When Hayes takes the mound, you can tell why brows furrow, why he's mocked from the stands, why people, frankly, have a hard time taking him seriously. Every pitch is a spectacle.

It starts out normal enough, the ball nestled in Hayes' glove as he eyes the plate. But then Hayes, a right-hander, performs his own brand of physical comedy. With his eyes trained on the catcher, Hayes bends his waist almost 90 degrees, like there is someone standing smack-dab in front of him and he is trying to peer around. Then, upper-body parallel to the ground, he lunges toward home plate, thrusting his right arm in a circuitous, downward route – downward to the point where he could scuff his knuckles on the dirt. When he finally releases the pitch, his hand is so low that it looks like the ball is being shot out of the mound. He completes the trick – er, pitch – with a two-footed hop toward third.

It's part skipping a rock, part hurling a discus, part tossing a softball – all with just a smidge of conventional pitching thrown in.

What makes all of this stranger yet is that Hayes' fastball tops out in the high-70s, inspiring the self-given nickname "Disco." Get it? He throws in the 70s. With Disco Hayes, the ball isn't going much faster from pitcher-to-catcher than it's going back out.

So the disparaging nicknames are understandable. Hayes is to pitching what Stanley Kubrick is to film-making, what Pink Floyd is to rock music. His style is a little…out there. And he knows it.

"It is strange, and it is kind of humbling," Hayes says. "A causal baseball fan who just came to the game to have a good time and get popcorn and beer – they might see me come in and it's like, ‘Well, this is kind of strange.'"


Courtesy Eldon Lindsay/Omaha Royals











But if Hayes is worried about people not taking him seriously, he doesn't show it. On his blog, DiscoHayes.mlblogs.com – where you'll find "The groovings of Royals pitching prospect Chris Hayes" – he wrote:

I'm the duck who neither looks, nor quacks like a duck. Baseball has become a game of Goliaths and I look a little more like David's dorky younger brother.

Indeed, Hayes is still a sideshow. But now he is on the cusp of being something else. Pretty soon, he might also be a major league pitcher.

***

At the moment, Chris Hayes is playing Class AAA baseball with the Omaha Royals. Triple-A, of course, is but one level below the big leagues. If Hayes moves up another rung in the baseball ladder, the "Omaha" in Omaha Royals will be replaced with "Kansas City."

To be honest, it's no sure thing that the 6-1, 195-pounder will ever get to the majors, and even more of a crapshoot how he would fare if he does get there. But the idea of Hayes getting the call is nonetheless gaining strength among those who follow Hayes and the Royals.

Baseball Prospectus writer Rany Jazayerli, who authors a Royals blog and hosts a Royals radio show, is unabashed in his endorsement of Hayes. In July, Jazayerli concluded a blog post largely dedicated to the idea of promoting Hayes by writing:

I'm trying to play this one straight, because I am dead serious when I write this. Chris Hayes is not a freak show anymore. He's a pitcher who can help the Royals right now. It's time to bring Disco to Kansas City.

And Greg Schaum, who hosts the Royals' pre- and post-game radio show, told Purple Reign, "Sometimes it's just taking advantage of the opportunities, and I think Chris will get that opportunity….There's a lot of value to Hayes. It's a matter of time before he gets to show it."

That people are talking about Hayes playing in the majors is unlikely on so many levels. Indeed, his baseball career has been as much an oddity as his pitching delivery.

Born in Detroit, Hayes grew up in the Chicago area and always had an affinity for Northwestern University, where his parents both went to school. He never missed a home football game, and he traveled to just about every Big Ten stadium to see the Wildcats play. He followed NU to the Rose Bowl, ditto for the Citrus Bowl. There was always purple in his blood.

But baseball, not football, was Hayes' first love. He attended Northwestern's baseball camp most summers growing up, and when it came time to go to college, NU seemed the logical choice.

"I had talked to (the coach at Northwestern) and said, ‘Hey, is there a chance for me to walk on?'" Hayes remembers. "And he said, ‘It's a good school. You should come here anyway, and we can see what we can work out.'

"I knew that if I went to Northwestern, I would have the best opportunity to play. But it wasn't anything where it was like, ‘If you come here you'll be on the team.' It was, ‘Come here because it's a good school and we'll see what happens.'"

Hayes didn't have the chance to be picky; he held zero offers to play baseball. So NU it was.

Thus begins Hayes' scratching-and-clawing tour of the baseball world. The guy who is now fodder for blogs and message boards and radio segments, the guy who is on the brink of the major leagues, had to first make his college team. Not that Hayes was ever worried.

"I remember being really confident that I'd be on the team," he says. "I just thought, ‘You know, I'm going to be on the team.' It didn't seem like there was an option for me not to be on the team."

That swagger may have earned Hayes a roster spot as a freshman in 2002, but little more. Self-assured or not, Hayes was mired on the bench, where he says his main contribution was trying to steal signs from the other team.

In his player bio on NU's athletic department Web site, Hayes' freshman achievements include, "Used mainly as a defensive substitute…Recorded the last two outs from the shortstop position in a 4-2 win over Penn State."

What Hayes remembers most about that freshman campaign was actually a joke. He got a rare appearance early in the season, as a pinch-hitter, and produced his first collegiate hit.

"I didn't bat again for like two months," Hayes recalls. "The Daily Northwestern wrote an article about how I was leading the nation in hitting, hitting 1.000. I was in there talking about how nobody could get me out. It was pretty fun."

That was his only hit of the season; he finished 1-for-3.

Hayes' sophomore year was again underwhelming. Pitching in a conventional overhand style, he logged 11.2 innings on the mound, striking out six batters and walking just as many. On offense, he had 29 at-bats with three RBI and two stolen bases. In 2004, his junior year, Hayes pitched in 23 games out of the bullpen, accruing a 4.15 ERA. At the plate he had 45 at-bats in 27 games, and his batting average hovered around .220.

Suffice it to say he didn't have "Major League Prospect" written all over him. But then again, Hayes' career at Northwestern began as a walk-on, so one could be forgiven for thinking that things were going just about as you'd expect. Walk-ons, after all, aren't supposed to be head-turners, especially ones like Hayes, who was never awarded a scholarship and was forced to try out anew each season.

Hayes, though, wasn't simply grateful to be playing college baseball. While the status quo was working well enough, while he found himself with a roster spot and steadily increasing playing time, Hayes wasn't content. For whatever reason, Hayes had this sense that he was destined to be more than a happy-to-have-a-uniform player.

At that point in his career, Northwestern coach Paul Stevens says that Hayes was a "jack of all trades." But certainly a master of none. And rational or not, he just knew he could be more. So he decided to change things up.

***

After every season, Stevens – now in his 21st year as NU's head coach – holds exit interviews with his players. While it wasn't anything noteworthy at the time, that junior year chat with coach may have been Hayes' first step toward the major leagues.

"It was like, ‘Alright, what can I do to help the team?'" Hayes remembers. "It was me trying to get on the field, basically. And I said, ‘Hey, I'm thinking about dropping down to throw sidearm.'"

Stevens didn't object.

"The consensus," says Hayes, "was that basically there weren't a whole lot of expectations for my senior year. They thought I'd make the team, but if I tried (pitching sidearm) and it didn't work out, it was like ‘Oh, well. It didn't hurt us much.' So I thought I'd try it."

The results of the experiment were pretty staggering. Remember what that player bio said in 2002? Used mainly as a defensive substitute. Well, for 2005 it begins: One of NU's most dominant closers in recent history.


Courtesy NU Athletics
Back then, Hayes' delivery was more straight sidearm than submarine – to batters, it was coming from about 8:30 instead of 6:30, which is what it is today. Nonetheless, it was devastatingly effective.

During his senior season, Hayes led the Big Ten in saves with nine, the most for a Wildcat since 1999. He pitched more innings than he had in his previous three seasons combined, appeared in a team-high 25 games, led the Wildcats in ERA and walked just 15 batters in his 44.2 innings.

Needless to say, the sidearm, baby-submarine delivery worked out.

"He didn't exactly throw gas," Stevens says. "He wasn't lighting up the radar gun, but he was always throwing around, messing with different arm angles….

"He would just do everything that he could to make himself and those around him better. He was always very, very persistent at finding ways to better his abilities. And definitely he caught a niche throwing sidearm."

Patrick Dorsey covered baseball for the Daily Northwestern during that 2005 season. And Dorsey, now a sports writer for the Indianapolis Star, remembers being caught off-guard by Hayes.


Courtesy NU Athletics
"He wasn't a guy that you went into the season thinking, ‘He was going to be one of their key players," Dorsey recalls. "But about midway through the year we were realizing, ‘Hey, this is actually one of their best players.' It wasn't entirely expected."

And about that quirky delivery?

"It definitely stood out," Dorsey says. "I'm not really a scout in terms of baseball, but you can tell who throws hard and who doesn't. He wasn't blowing anybody away with his pitches. He had that strange delivery. You could tell he was a deception guy and not a power guy."

Hayes' college career ended on a high note. He had sidearmed his way to a stellar senior season, achieving more than any walk-on could hope to achieve. He won his battle with the radar gun, got to play college baseball, even showed his knack for nicknames: "Purple Hayes." Oh, and he earned himself a computer science degree in the process.

Yep, it was a happy ending. Except for one thing.

It wasn't the end.

***

If you were going to compare Hayes' baseball career to his delivery, this would be the point where he is really low, barely avoiding the dirt.

Like pretty much all of your sub-80 mph pitchers, Hayes wasn't drafted. The demand for pitchers who top out in the 70s is about as high as the demand for hand-warmers in Egypt.

Not to worry, though. That stubborn, somewhat irrational confidence that Hayes had when he was walking on at Northwestern – well, he still had it. So when he (predictably) went undrafted, it wasn't time to be glum and polish up his résumé. Instead, it was time to sign on with the Windy City Thunderbolts.

Hayes' contract with the Thunderbolts – formerly the Cook County Cheetahs – was worth all of $500 per month. And only so long as he was on the squad – the team hosted tryouts on a seemingly rolling basis, and Hayes says that by the end of his first week, he was the second-most senior player in the bullpen.

Hayes posted a 2.41 ERA with Windy City in 2005, logging 41 innings in 28 games. A look at the Hayes' stats suggested a solid, reliable bullpen cog. But a look at Hayes' delivery – which had sunk even lower since Northwestern – suggested a 22-year-old who had yet to accept his fate. And the radar gun, as always, wasn't complying with Hayes' ambition.

While wary of the specter of violence, Hayes next headed for South America, where he pitched in the Columbian Winter League. Minor league baseball is a little bit, uh, rustic in Columbia, where the experience came complete with shattered glass in the outfield and the occasional roadside campout after a bus breakdown.

Maybe it goes without saying that there isn't good statistical information from Hayes' stint in Columbia. He did, however, play well enough to get picked up by the Kansas City Royals organization, which sent him to Single-A Burlington, Iowa. In about a year, Hayes' baseball career had taken him from the Windy City to Columbia to Iowa.

Yet again, Hayes made himself right at home. In his 2006 season with Burlington, he pitched in a team-high 45 games and posted a solid 2.79 ERA. He wasn't striking out many people – 6.3 K/9 – but he wasn't walking anyone, either – 2.1 BB/9. He appeared in more games than any other Burlington pitcher, and had the third-best ERA of anyone who pitched at least 67 innings. Really, it was a pretty good showing. But while the stats said one thing, people's eyes said another. And instead of a possible promotion, Hayes was asked to repeat his year in Burlington.

If scouts expected a digression from Hayes, they didn't get it. In 2007 he again led the team in appearances with 42 and posted a 3.10 ERA. The ERA was up a bit, but Hayes still wasn't walking anyone – just 1.8 BB/9 – or giving up home runs. He gave up just three homers in his two Single-A seasons.

Finally, Hayes got called up to Double-A to play for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in Springdale, Ark. And if Windy City and Columbia and Burlington weren't the final resting places for Hayes' career, some people thought that Springdale certainly would be. Schaum, the Royals radio host, says a source with the Royals told him that as soon as Hayes flamed out in Double-A – and he would flame out in Double-A – the organization already had plans to offer him a job as an executive intern. The Royals thought Hayes had promise, just not as a pitcher.

But something strange happened. While the hitters waiting in Double-A were the best that Hayes had ever faced, they still couldn't dance to Disco. They couldn't keep up – or slow down, as it were – with Hayes.


Anomalously, Hayes' number improved in Springdale. He posted a 1.64 ERA in 40 games, logging 65.2 innings. He gave up an average of one homer every 18 innings. He allowed less than one base runner per inning. He walked a batter once every fifth inning. He was lights out.

"There's a decent amount of guys who throw different, or have a gimmick – I guess gimmick is the word," Hayes says. "And they get signed in A-ball, and they get guys out in A-ball, but as they go up, their gimmick doesn't work. I've shown that mine's not a gimmick."

Heading into Double-A, the Royals seemed to think Hayes' brain was his biggest asset; they weren't necessarily wrong. Even though Hayes' arm proved sufficient, his smarts still had everything to do with his success.

"Don't sit there and shake off his intellect of hitters," Stevens says. "I would bet my bottom dollar that he's making notes on guys and studying every batter. I think that this is a young man who studies every aspect of the game and utilizes his intelligence to make his time on the mound more productive….

"I think that's why he's becoming more and more effective at the upper levels: He gets to see (batters) more and he gets to study them more. He's not a stupid guy. He got into Northwestern, and that's not an easy task. There are a lot of intangibles that have kept him in the game, and that's what he's doing now. It's the little things that are making difference. I don't care how fast he's pitching. There's a lot of guys who can turn around on a 90-mile-an-hour fastball."

Hayes, of course, doesn't have a 90-mile-an-hour fastball. Nor does he need one. But the Royals, well, they wanted to see Hayes do it again. So after his dominant Double-A season in 2008, he was asked to repeat his performance this year.

Lo and behold, he didn't do it.

Instead, he got better. His ERA went from really good (1.64) to outlandish (0.98). Same for his home run rate – 0.5 HR/9 to 0.2 HR/9. Same for his walks – 1.8 BB/9 to 1.5 B/9. Same for pretty much everything.

The only statistic to digress was the one that's never been too important to Hayes: Strike outs. His measly average of 5.3 K/9 dipped to an even more measly 4.2 K/9. But Hayes has never been one to strike out batters anyhow.

"The way I throw, I'm trying to get the guy to hit the ball," Hayes says. "If there's a guy on first and someone said, ‘Do you want to strike him out?' Well, no, I want him to hit a ground ball into a double play. You get two outs in one pitch instead of one out on three pitches."

***

Having proved at various levels for about four years that he wasn't a some fluke, Hayes was called up to Class AAA Omaha in mid-June. As of Aug. 11, he had appeared in 18 Triple-A games and posted a 4.22 ERA.

That ERA was much better until back-to-back bad outings at the beginning of August. On Aug. 7, after giving up just three runs in his previous 9.1 innings, Hayes was tagged with two earned runs in one inning. And his next time out, on Aug. 11, he had a three-run inning.


One might ask if that two-game stretch, in which Hayes posted an ERA of more than 20, is an aberration, or if maybe Hayes' run is up. Two games is a minute sample size, so you could argue that this is just a small hiccup on Hayes' way to the majors; everyone gives up runs. But you could also argue that while Hayes' barnstorming of the minors has been fun, alas, Disco ball is bound to lose its glitter.

What happens from here on out is anyone's guess. If Hayes were guessing, though, he thinks – well, you know what he thinks.

"I still have it now, that blind confidence," Hayes says. "It's really difficult to get to the big leagues, but all along I've just felt it's a matter of time. I'm going to be there."


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