Ji-Hwan Bae’s Speed is Now on Display in Center Field

Ji-Hwan Bae has moved all over the middle of the field in his pro career with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He was signed for $1.25 million in 2018 out of Korea as a shortstop, but by 2019, he was splitting time between second base and short.

When minor league baseball returned in 2021, the Pirates promoted Bae to Double-A, and had him primarily playing second base. However, a new position was added to the mix, with Bae getting work in center field.

“For me, [center field is] easier than second base or shortstop,” Bae said. “The one thing, it’s hard to read the line drive. I’m getting some reps in center. I like the gap-to-gap, to use my speed.”

Bae has continued to play center field in the Arizona Fall League, and probably has a better shot at cracking the majors one day with the Pirates in the outfield than the infield.

Regardless of his position, speed will be the ultimate thing Bae brings to the table.

His speed can play on defense, covering a lot of ground at either middle infield role, or having more room to work with in center field. At the plate, he profiles as a speedy leadoff hitter, with plus contact skills, good plate patience, and the ability to steal bases.

One of the more surprising developments in 2021 has been the slight increase in power from Bae’s small frame, mostly brought on from his adjusted swing.

Bae used to have a leg kick, prior to being signed by the Pirates. He adjusted his swing and removed the kick once he came over, making it easier to adjust to the higher velocity in the United States. The transition had a bad impact on his hitting, and he’s worked to incorporate the leg kick back to his swing.

“I’m not a big guy, but I’m trying to use my power as much as I can,” Bae said. “So I’m trying to be compact and explosive.”

The ability to be more than a singles hitter will help Bae remain at the top of the batting order, rather than the bottom of the order. That would increase his value from any defensive position.

The center field work looks to be an experiment at this point, and Bae is definitely still working on his fundamentals at second base. Being mostly a former shortstop, he’s adjusting to the double play turn, flipping the ball to the bag, and other movements from the opposite side.

“He’s gaining ground,” Altoona bench coach Gary Green said of Bae’s work at second. “There’s still some things that he’s working on, double play pivots, work around the bag, how to field fundamentally. It’s basically all of the fundamentals as well.”

Bae is coming off a season where he hit for a .278/.359/.413 line in Altoona, with seven home runs in 365 plate appearances. He’s currently hitting well in the AFL, with a .320/.426/.480 line and two homers in 61 plate appearances.

The Pirates could see Bae push his way into the majors in 2022. Having the ability to play second, short, and center field could open the door for him as a super utility type initially, working toward settling down at a single position if he hits enough to be a starter.

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