3-9-23 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)
For almost the entire 2022 Season, Pirates Fans were clamoring for Ji-hwan Bae to make his Major League Debut.
From the start Bae came out swinging…literally.
Over the first three months of the season Bae slashed .305/.368/.473 with a career tying 8 home runs, 19 stolen bases and a 16.1% K to 8.9% BB-rate across 292 plate appearances. Obviously, it would be nice to have the walk rate to be slightly higher; but, at the time it really wasn’t an issue because he wasn’t having any trouble getting on base.
Unfortunately for Bae the month of July would not be very kind to him; as he started to experience an issue with his oblique, and ultimately landed on the IL after hitting just .259 with an .693 OPS and a uncharacteristic 24.2 K-rate.
All in all Bae would miss three full series in a row, and a few games in the next two series that followed; while eventually working his way back to full go for his last few weeks in Triple-A. Still, he wasn’t playing at the same level as he had during the first half of the season. Although you wouldn’t know it, based on how he performed in his cup of coffee in the majors.
Across 79 plate appearances batted .232, but saw his OPS helped out by 10 walks to 9 strikeouts, and 6 extra base hits-none of them over the fence though.
Still, we he finally did arrive in Pittsburgh, the attributes that helped him excel over the first half with Indianapolis, were on full display with the Big League Club.
He hit, he swiped bases, he used speed to leg out infield singles or turn singles into doubles and generally created havoc on the base paths and at the plate.
Most of all he created excitement, and a subsequent buzz surrounding him, as the Pirates headed into Spring Training.
Seen by some as having a chance of forcing Bryan Reynolds to left field-or in the worst case scenario replacing Reynolds if and/or when he was traded-even though he only had a total 366.2 innings of experience at the position, Bae has been deployed mostly as a second basemen-with shortstop recently being mixed in-through the first almost two weeks of Spring.
This is clearly by design, as Rob Biertempfel reported that the team was looking to narrow Bae’s focus to one area all the way back on January 30th.
So, it looks like his main competition for taking the flight to Cincinnati at the beginning of the season on March 30th, would be Tucupita Marcano, Chris Owings and Drew Maggi; with all of them falling in behind Rodolfo Castro.
[This may not seem like much of a competition; but, don’t worry we’ll get to that.]
If he would have been put mostly in the outfield, he would have stacked up against Canaan Smith-Njigba, Travis Swaggerty, Cal Mitchell, and maybe even Ryan Vilade and Chavez Young; as Reynolds, Jack Suwinski, Connor Joe and Andrew McCutchen seem to have the Top 4 on lockdown.
So, maybe slightly better odds; but, maybe not as good as you think.
As of late there have been some rumblings-and not just social media fodder-surrounding the possibility of Owings having the inside track for the super utility role. Add in the fact(s) they have been been bouncing Maggi all around the infield, and that he has played every position in the Minors outside of catcher. Although it has be noted that the Pirates have only only ever used him as an infielder; even last year in the Minors.
Now, the Pirates-but more specifically Ben Cherington-has added another horse to the race, Mark Mathias; who Gary wrote about earlier today.
[Clearly this bit of news is going to go over well with Pirates Fans.]
With that all stirred-up and taken care of, we can look at the other reason(s) for the off-season buzz, which has everything to do with the newly instituted rules; especially the bigger bases and disengagement rules for pitchers.
In his Minor League Career, Bae has accumulated 91 stolen bases in 122 attempts; good for an approximate 75% success rate. Based on numerous studies, 67% is seen as the break-even point to determine whether or not stolen base attempts are helping your team.
Now, as far as the shift restriction rules are concerned, I believe the benefit that Bae will experience has been somewhat over stated.
Each report I have read on subject has stated that left-handed batters, who hit hard ground balls and line-drives to the pull-side, will see their numbers increase more dramatically.
Of the parameters for success above, Bae only falls comfortably into one. In his professional career, he has a ground ball rate of 56% even. Aside from that he is not a pull-hitter-coming in at 33.3% Pull/22.2% Center/44.4% Oppo-and he doesn’t really hit the ball hard consistently-landing just north of 80 MPH for his exit velocity.
Could he still be a productive MLB player? Absolutely!
And personally, I think he will be based purely on his track record.
Could he end up starting the season back in Triple-A? This is entirely possible.
He got a taste at the end of last year, and should be hungry for more. Still, they also need to make sure he gets regular at bats.
It’s just that right now, the path to that is not as unobstructed as it once appeared.