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Perrotto: Versatility Aside, One Position Really Fits Ji Hwan Bae

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Ji Hwan Bae, Pittsburgh Pirates

Remember the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 20-8 start to the season?

Yes, it seems like a long time ago. However, one aspect that stood out about that run was the spark rookie infielder/outfielder Ji Hwan Bae provided with his blazing speed as well as the promise of becoming an above-average hitter and fielder.

Bae has become somewhat of a forgotten man since that hot start. Of course, He also spent 45 days on the injured list from July 2-Aug. 17 with a sprained left ankle, which put a significant dent in his season.

Since returning from the IL, Bae has hit .250/.357/.361 with four doubles and one stolen base in 12 games. While the low steal total is a bit of a disappointment, the high on-base percentage gives renewed hope that Bae could eventually settle in as the Pirates’ long-term leadoff hitter.

Bae readily admits he wants to hit at the top of the batting order. Manager Derek Shelton thinks Bae is increasing his chances of doing so with his post-IL showing.

“I think the biggest thing is he’s really in control,” Shelton said. “He’s taking aggressive swings, but he hasn’t been out of control. And then overall, just the energy he brings. It’s nice to see him healthy. I think for a little bit, he was protecting his foot a little bit. The fact that he’s healthy now and able to move, I think we’re seeing the version we saw earlier in the year.”

Bae’s batting average was at a season-high .277 on June 9 through his first 57 games to go with a .335 OBP, .361 slugging percentage and 19 stolen bases. Those figures then dropped off to .104/.184/.125 with one steal in 19 games before going on the IL.

Healthy again, Bae should be considered a big block in the Pirates’ rebuilding effort. Few players on their roster are more exciting than the 24-year-old.

A big question surrounding Bae is where he fits in the Pirates’ long-term plan.

Bae began his professional career as a shortstop but didn’t convince the Pirates he could play the position regularly in the major leagues. That leaves second base or center field as the most logical landing spot.

It is becoming increasingly clear that rookie Liover Peguero is claiming a big stake to the second base job.

That leaves center field as the best fit for Bae. Jack Suwinski’s minus-7 defensive runs saved in 100 games in center this season makes it clear that he is better suited for a corner outfield spot.

Shelton does not hesitate to play Bae in center field, though the South Korean’s versatility could be a drawback to getting regular time at the position.

“Oh, he can play center,” Shelton said. “I think it’s just going to be a determining factor of where we feel his value is the greatest. Ultimately, I think we’re going to probably see that his value is going to be the greatest being able to play multiple positions. In terms of being a center fielder, yeah, he’s not going to have any issues being out there.”

Bae has minus-1 DRS in 49 games in center field in 2023. However, Bae is passing the eye test for Shelton with each rep he gets in center.

“I don’t think at the beginning of the season he was a natural there,” Shelton said. “He’s gotten more comfortable out there, he’s worked really hard to be better out there. His routes are better, his breaks are better. And then he’s got the speed to just close on balls.”

Bae has confidence in center field now. He believes he can make every play and is fearless in chasing down fly balls.

“The one thing that I think really stands out about Ji is that most guys that transition to the outfield, one of their challenges is the wall,” Shelton said. “He’s not afraid of the wall. We’ve seen him run into it two or three times full speed. It’s different than a lot of young outfielders that are learning to play the outfield and a lot of young outfielders that are coming to the big leagues. Playing the outfield in the big leagues is a hell of a lot different than the minor leagues.”

Bae is starting to make playing center field look easy. Even though the Pirates are infatuated with versatile players, it would be fun to watch them make Bae a full-time center fielder and just watch him go.

John Perrotto is a columnist for Pittsburgh Baseball Now and has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates and MLB since 1988.

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