Bae’s day is today. In fact, the past two weeks have made him a household name. Pittsburgh Pirates infielder turned utilityman Ji Hwan Bae has been as impressive as any young Bucco beginning to shine on the Major League stage. Primarily a second baseman and shortstop throughout the Minor Leagues, Bae has shined on the diamond and in the outfield as a defensive weapon, especially in a spot unfamiliar to him.
Bae made a spectacular catch in Boston against the green monster in center field during the first week of the season, robbing Rafael Devers of extra bases.
JI HWAN BAE WITH THE PLAY OF THE DAY! pic.twitter.com/YBk1GNt3zv— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) April 5, 2023
He didn’t stop there. In game one of a four-game series against the division-rival Cardinals, Bae made two unreal catches that veteran center fielders tend to struggle to route and grab. The first at the wall, the second diving on a dive following a full-out sprint.
Tyler O’Neill stepped to the plate with two on and two out in a tie ballgame and drove one to the left-center field gap. Bae ranged to his right, leaped in the air, crashed into the wall and held onto the ball to make a spectacular catch. Let me reiterate he’s a second baseman. Or a shortstop. But not a seasoned outfielder.
Ji Hwan Bae just keeps doing amazing things pic.twitter.com/K1tM96Lmcf— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) April 14, 2023
He repeated his wizardry in the next frame to rob Alec Burleson of a hit. Both grabs ended the inning. The 23-year-old is not entirely fresh to the outfield though. Bae played 29 games between Double-A and Triple-A in center, combining for 140.2 innings. He also played eight games in left (57 innings) while in Indianapolis.
Bae played well over 1,300 innings at second and 726 at short in the Minors but now is molding into a role of his own thanks to position flexibility. The lefty batter is not posting overpowering numbers at the plate - 10 hits in 42 at-bats plus two home runs and six RBI - but has stolen four bases and crushed a walk-off homer against the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros.
Bae’s speed, defense, ability to play multiple positions and overall versatility reminds me of another fan favorite from the 2013-15 playoff teams, Josh Harrison. Standing at 5-foot-8 but not lacking in power potential, Harrison played left, right, third base, second base and shortstop for Clint Hurdle’s clubs. His versatility made the Pirates a better ballclub and earned extra at-bats when a player would be sidelined due to injury.
A similar circumstance stands with Bae. The loss of Oneil Cruz for four months is a crushing blow to the franchise's most talented player, but Bae has shined bright before and after Cruz’s injury. Losing their 6-foot-7 shortstop and replacing him with a revolving cast of characters including Bae, Rodolfo Castro and young players like Nick Gonzales and Liover Peguero waiting in the wings will be difficult. There’s no denying it. Bryan Reynolds playing significantly more in left than center has opened the door for Bae to shine, much like Harrison did when the lights turned on.
Their speed, quickness, willingness to move around and care for the team’s success over their own was (Harrison) and has been (Bae) beneficial for the Pirates organization. Plus their teammates love them.
Bae is not going to be a major offensive threat and able to drive the ball consistently. He ranks in low percentiles by Baseball Savant in hard-hit percentage (24th) strikeout percentage (29th), average exit velocity (31st), and poor chase rate (10%). There is a ton still left to work on while his 94th percentile sprint speed allows him to beat out ground balls and turn singles into doubles.
Look for Bae to continually steal the hearts of Pirates fans alike, clinging to the hope the team will soon be good again. An 8-6 start may be the beginning of something wildly unanticipated, but like wherever Bae is penciled into the lineup, it’s all about taking it one day at a time.