Photo: Tim Heitman-USA Today Sports
A star is born…and is still developing.
When Adam Duvall went down with an injury in last year’s NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Braves country got to see a future star quicker than expected, as the then 21-year-old Cristian Pache filled Duvall’s spot and started in the outfield for that series. He came up with some timely hits and also had a few defensive highlights as well, such as robbing Max Muncy of a homer in Game 5. His performance got Braves fans (myself included) excited to see what Pache would bring to the table next season in his first full year. To add to the hype, he changed his number during Spring Training this year to 25, the number worn by Braves legend Andruw Jones, whom many have compared Pache to over the years.
To start 2021, however, Pache is hitting a dismal .107 with a .196 slugging percentage, a 37.7% strikeout rate, and a -8 OPS+ (for context, an OPS+ of 100 is considered an average number for a hitter). His average exit velocity is 74.4, which is below the MLB average. He also has the same amount of home runs (1) and RBIs (4) this year that he had in the NLCS, and those numbers this year came on a grand slam against the Toronto Blue Jays a couple weeks ago.
Despite his offensive struggles, Pache has proven to be an excellent defensive center-fielder. With his great speed, he is able to cover a lot of ground in the outfield. He also boosts a solid arm, and he can get the ball back in the infield quickly. He will no doubt rack up multiple Gold Glove awards for his defense over the coming years.
What should we make of this start?
I don’t think there should be much worry when it comes to his overall career development. Some players just take longer to develop. However, with guys like fellow teammate Ronald Acuña Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., and Juan Soto rising to superstardom almost immediately upon their arrival to The Show without even turning 25 yet, fans of baseball are being conditioned to expect top young prospects to produce immediately. In a way, Pache has been producing immediately with his glove, just not in the way fans expect offensively.
As exciting as it is to see guys rake early on, it can be terrible for the confidence of other young players such as Pache, as they have a mindset that more is expected of them quickly these days. However, we need not look back far for highly touted players who struggled to begin their careers. The aforementioned Andruw Jones, a man who would go on to win 10 Gold Gloves in his career and hit 434 home runs, hit .231 in his first full year with the Braves back in 1997. He would go on to hit 31 homers and have 90 RBIs the following year. Former #2 overall MLB Draft pick Byron Buxton of the Minnesota Twins struggled to a .220 batting average over his first two seasons in 2015 and 2016 before having his first real solid year in 2017, where he hit .253 with 16 home runs while also winning a Gold Glove award. Today, after many setbacks and injuries, Buxton is one of the hottest players in baseball, as he is currently hitting .370 and slugging around .772.
Chipper Jones once said of Pache that he could be an “X-factor” for the Braves in coming years, and I’m sure he will be. His average will no doubt rise over the season and he will continue to play great defense. If time in the minors is coming, and a brief stint might be needed this year, that’s ok. After all, he is only 22 years old.