Whenever you ask a player where he would like to play, the answer you will most likely receive is “where the coach wants me to.”
No one fits the description of playing whatever position he is needed at more than junior baseball player James Hayes.
Hayes has played shortstop, second base, right field, center field and pitched throughout his three-year career at Rider.
“He’s very versatile on defense and can play every position on the field,” Head Coach Barry Davis said. “What a lot of people don’t know is he’s also our fourth-string, emergency catcher.”
When a recruit comes to college as a pitcher/fielder, the coach will decide which position he’s better at and tell him to focus solely on that, especially on the Division-I level. It’s only in rare cases where the player has the potential to be successful at the college level in both spots when team personnel will allow the prospect to do both.
Davis gave Hayes the opportunity to put his pitching arsenal on display, and he became the Broncs’ closer.
“We knew he had good breaking stuff in high school,” Davis said. “We got him on the mound, got a chance to see him and he came in and showed he could do it.”
Hayes led the team with four saves his freshman year, and nailed down 11 last season — Rider’s single-season record and good for 23rd in the nation. He currently has 20 saves, making him the school’s all-time leader.
The two-time Second Team All-MAAC honoree has posted a 2.08 ERA this season and in just 13 innings, has already struck out 21 hitters. For his career, Hayes averages 9.4 punch-outs per nine innings.
“He thrives off of pressure,” Pitching Coach Jim Carone said. “His fastball ranges from 88 to 92 miles per hour; he has an outstanding curveball and changeup. Put all three together, and he’s dominant as long as he’s throwing strikes. We’re comfortable with him with the game on the line.”
While he’s a force on the hill, Hayes also packs a punch at the plate. In his first season, Hayes won MAAC and New Jersey Rookie of the Year when he was third in the conference with a .372 batting average and fourth with 18 steals. He also led his club in doubles, RBIs, total bases, slugging percentage, and was tied for second in home runs.
During his sophomore campaign, the former Piper High School standout was a difficult “out” on the base paths, as he was a near-perfect 15-16 on steal attempts. Hayes’ batting average took a hit, but he still finished third on the team in average, hitting at a .281 clip and was second on the team with 11 doubles. People started to take notice as he became a dual threat at the dish and on the mound, and he was named to the pre-season 2008 Brooks Wallace Player of the Year Award Watch List.
“It was a great feeling being named to the list and great publicity for the Rider baseball program along with myself,” Hayes said.
One thing is for certain; the publicity didn’t get the best of the junior utility man. A table setter at the top of the order, Hayes is hitting .364 and has an on-base slugging percentage of .905.
In the last 11 games, the MAAC Player of the Week from March 23-29 is 23-46 from the plate, including 10 multiple hit games.
“Right now I’m seeing the ball real well and being patient and getting my pitch,” Hayes said.
A major aspect of Hayes’ offensive game is what he does when the bat isn’t in his hands. During his three years in the cranberry and white, his total steals has risen each year. According to Davis, Hayes can cause problems for opposing teams with his threat to take the extra base, and already he’s swiped 20 bags.
How Hayes came to Lawrenceville is an interesting story. Rider was able to recruit him out of beautiful Florida to come all the way up to cold New Jersey to play ball.
“He was recommended to us through a scouting service,” Davis said. “We needed a shortstop and we were lucky to get him.”
Recruited as an infielder, Hayes has been playing more and more in the outfield this season so it would be less strain on his arm, Davis said.
The Sunshine State has always been a hotbed for promising high school football and baseball prospects. The experience of getting to play baseball all year with some of the best talent in the country was definitely a plus for the Sunrise native.
“Obviously growing up in Florida is a great opportunity to play baseball year-round and the talent I played with and against is as good as any,” Hayes said. “There are a few guys that I’ve played against that are pushing to make Major League rosters this year and it was a great challenge for me growing up.”
After he finishes up his junior campaign, Hayes will head up to Wisconsin to play in the Northwoods League. Some top-flight players have come out of that league, such as Pittsburgh Pirates ace Tom Gorzelanny, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielders Juan Pierre and Andre Either, Toronto Blue Jays closer Jeremy Accardo and Detroit Tigers outfielder Curtis Granderson.
Last summer, Hayes played for the Staunton Braves in Virginia’s Valley League. They’ve also had some Major Leaguers come out of there, such as Boston Red Sox third basemen Mike Lowell, the 2007 World Series MVP, Baltimore Orioles utility man Aubrey Huff and former All-Star outfielder Reggie Sanders.
“I look forward to the opportunity to go [to Wisconsin] and play a tough schedule,” Hayes said. “It’s fun to be able to play everyday and not have to worry about anything except baseball.”
Before the summer rolls around, Hayes is focused on helping the Broncs head down to Waterfront Park in Trenton and bringing the program its first ever MAAC title and first conference crown since winning the Northeast Conference in 1996.
“Now I’m just out there worrying about winning games and getting a chance to play for the MAAC Championship,” he said.