Bae's lightning speed makes him indispensable -- and stylish

March 2nd, 2024

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Korean speedster Ji Hwan Bae is an intriguing player for the Pirates.

"Yeah, I mean, he's uber-athletic,” said Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton. “Ability to play multiple positions, still working on the functionality of being consistent with his swing. But, he's an important piece for us."

Bae walked and scored a run in the Pirates’ 7-3 win Saturday over the Tigers, and blazed his way around the bases. He stole 24 bases last season on 33 attempts, and covers a lot of ground in the field.

The lightning bolt earring in his right earlobe symbolizes his speed.

“I first bought my star earring [in left earlobe] and then got the lightning one for free," Bae said.

“So, my jeweler saw me running on the field, and he just gave me one for free. He said he saw the [lightning] logo on my batting gloves.”

Bae, 24, batted .231 with two homers and 32 RBI in his first full season in 2023. And he managed to score an impressive 54 runs in 334 at-bats, thanks in large part to his above-average speed.

“I mean, I take a lot of joy in my speed,” he said.

That speed game also ties into his childhood idol, Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki, who stole 509 bases and amassed 3,089 hits in 19 Major League seasons.

Did he model his game after Suzuki’s?

“A lot,” said Bae. “Back in the day there were almost none of them, Asian players, in the big leagues. So, he was the one and only for me.

“Everybody hit a homer, but Ichiro wasn’t [though, he did total 117 homers]. He was using his speed, and I feel I want to be like that. Like him. Not many guys can do it.”

Has he crossed paths with or spoken with Suzuki?

“No. I saw him throwing BP, and I didn’t want to talk to him. He was working," said Bae. "So, I just was watching it.”

Bae was a shortstop in Double-A before being converted to second base (where he made 56 starts last season) due to the emergence of Oneil Cruz, and then asked to learn center field (33 starts in 2023).

Playing the outfield makes him more versatile, enhancing his roster value. He’s progressed well in center.

"I think we're seeing the routes get better,” said Shelton. “He's so fast, and he gets so fast so quick, that at times, he's almost got to slow himself down. So, now we're seeing him be able to gauge the ball, to be able to read the ball off the bat and not have to get to top speed right away."

“Sometimes I feel I am rushed," Bae added. "…I try to calm down when I see an opportunity to steal or I see a ball come down a little more. I try and watch it and relax.”

Starting center fielder Jack Suwinski has seen that progress up close.

“He’s a very talented player," Suwinksi said. "He has speed and pop. He can cause a lot of havoc on the bases. He can drop down a base hit bunt at any time. He can also slug and get doubles and triples. I’ve seen him hit the ball out of the park quite a few times. He’s got some power, too.”

Bae also has quite a sense of humor and keeps the clubhouse loose. He’s becoming quite fluent in English, and only leans on interpreter Daniel Park for roughly one-quarter of his answers.

The Pirates have taken to him for his performance, potential and personality.

Kelly, managerial material

Pirates bench coach Don Kelly was back home for this game. He spent six of nine Major League seasons with the Tigers.

“I think the biggest thing is he's got a ton of humility,” said Shelton. “I mean, anybody that's ever been around Donnie for five minutes likes him, and the fact that he has the playing experience he has in a lot of different ways. And honestly, he played for one of the best managers in the history of the game, who really kind of took to him and still takes to him. [Former Tigers manager] Jim [Leyland] still takes to him.

“And I think that's really important, but the biggest thing is just the way he understands the game and he's gonna manage. Donnie's gonna manage when he wants to manage, when the right opportunity comes up, and I think it's just a matter of time."

Kelly played all nine positions, even pitching one inning, but focused on corner outfield and infield play. Bae credited him for “helping me a lot” in learning new positions.