Pittsburgh Pirates: Dissecting the Second Base Situation

May 17, 2023; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Ji Hwan Bae (3) and
May 17, 2023; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Ji Hwan Bae (3) and / Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ji Hwan Bae's struggles, Rodolfo Castro needs more at-bats against right-handed pitching, and dissecting the Pittsburgh Pirates second base situation

It came to the surprise of some, if not many that Ji Hwan Bae got the nod at second base over Rodolfo Castro back on Opening Day for the Pittsburgh Pirates. While both Bae and Castro have gotten plenty of at-bats since then, especially in the wake of Oneil Cruz’s ankle fracture, in recent weeks Bae has seemed to emerge as Derek Shelton’s primary second baseman, especially against right-handed pitching.

Well, after a strong first two weeks of the season Bae has really cooled off at the plate. Through his first 138 plate appearances this season Bae is hitting for just a .254/.309/.341 slash line with a wRC+ and OPS+ of 80. Bae has drawn walks at just a 6.5% clip while striking out in 25.4% of his trips to the plate.

Bae has shown little to no power. He has just seven extra base hits to go with an isolated slugging (ISO) of .087. For reference, league average ISO sits in the .140-.150 range. In fact, only 11 of Bae’s hits have left the infield. To have nearly 140 PAs with only 11 base hits having left the infield is a stat that is hard to wrap your mind around.

A big reason Bae has not hit for a power has been an inability to hit the ball hard.

Bae’s average exit velocity of 84.6 MPH is 2 MPH below league average and sits in bottom 14% of baseball. Meanwhile, his hard hit rate of 30.1% is 6% below average and his 3.2% barrel rate is nearly 4% below average. Both his hard hit and barrel rates sit in the bottom 13% of baseball.

So far this season Bae has left a lot to be desired with his defense as well. He owns a -1 Outs Above Average at both shortstop and second base, to go with a -2 Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop and -1 at second base. In the outfield, he has an OAA of 0 and a DRS of -2 in center field. His overall defensive WAR this season is -3.3

The area where Bae has impacted the game most is with his elite speed. His sprint speed ranks in the 96th percentile of baseball. This has helped Bae still 14 bases which is tied for second in the National League. However, his 5 caught stealing lead the NL. So, there has been a bit of recklessness there.

Bae is still a young player at just 23-years-old, so there is plenty of time for him to improve. Due to his young age there is also reason for hope that there is growth left in Bae as a player. However, right now, Bae playing with this much regularity is doing the Pirates more harm than good.

Look, we get it, Castro has struggled in his career against right-handed pitching. He’s hitting just .213/.324/.246 against RHP this season with a wRC+ of 68. However, he does own a 10% walk rate, 21% line drive rate, and a 31.3% fly ball rate against righties. His biggest issue is a 31% strikeout rate.

Also, overall, Castro just flat out hits the ball with authority. His average exit velocity of 90.0 MPH ranks in the 60th percentile of baseball, his 11.7% barrel rate is in the 75th percentile, and his 46.8% hard hit rate is in the 77th percentile. With the glove, Castro's DRS at second base is 0. So while it's jsut avrage, it's still better than Bae.

As for Bae, it’s not as if he’s found great success against RHP. Bae owns a .225/.289/.348 slash line with a 75 wRC+ against righties. While his 33.3% line drive rate is strong, his 9.5% fly ball rate, 5% walk rate, and 28% strikeout rate are not.

Moving forward, there is no reason for Castro to continue to sit with regularity against RHP. Castro looks like a hitter who can have success against RHP if he cuts down on the strikeouts. With Bae struggling in essentially every facet of the game, Castro deserves to get more looks against righties.

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