The day has finally come in Atlanta, and the Braves have promoted their top prospect in center fielder Cristian Pache. Pache has carried huge hype over the past few years after being one of the Braves’s biggest signings in 2015 and has thus far lived up to the hype in becoming one of baseball’s biggest prospects. His carrying tool is his double plus defense and arm strength, both of which give him the ability to be a premiere center fielder with the glove, but questions have lingered about his offensive potential due to an unorthodox swing and just decent numbers in the minor leagues. We’re going to take a look at those numbers for Pache today and see how they tell the story of his professional development and where he needs to go to reach his potential.
There’s not a lot of doubt that Pache has the ability to be a superstar with the bat. He’s a premium athlete who has shown raw power and contact ability, but his swing mechanics and late development have made him more of a wild card going forward. Pache to his credit has never had a level where it was clear he was overwhelmed and wasn’t hitting, and you can see that in that his lowest batting average through any full season came last year at .277. This all despite him reaching Triple-A at age 20. There are still concerns over his hitting ability though, and they boil down to his numbers beyond just his raw slash line.
Pache’s puts the ball in play at a well above average rate, with a career strikeout rate of 19.5% and he’s been consistent in doing so at every level he has played at. He struck out 24% of the time in Double-A in 2019, easily the highest rate of his career, but even that is quite good for a 20 year old and wasn’t much worse than the league average of 22.8%. That number is a bit deceiving however as there is plenty of swing and miss to his game. His swinging strike rate has been well worse than league average at every level with most seasons putting him in the bottom quarter of the league in that regard. Much of that is his approach at the plate, as he’s aggressive and thus doesn’t take many pitches in the zone, but it’s a concern and something that major league pitchers will try to capitalize on. This points to one of his biggest overall issues which is just patience on balls in the zone. Pache attacks most pitches in the zone and his good but not elite bat to ball skills will leave him coming up empty or making poor contact too often for a hitter to excel.
The plate discipline issue is one that Pache paid especially close attention to last season and the youngster saw a quick increase in his walk rate last season. This came with a bump to his strikeout rate as well, but he made contact at a high enough rate to justify the increase in walks. 2017 Pache, the one that played with Rome, was by far the best version of him from those peripherals but as he advanced pitchers started to challenge him more and take advantage of his tendency towards swinging at less-than-ideal strikes. His walk rate took a huge tumble in 2018 and he was well below 5% at both levels which put him in the bottom tenth of the league in walk rate. His walk rate doubled from 2018 to 2019 and because of this despite a slight drop in batting average his on base percentage exploded and he put up his best mark in that category since rookie ball. It’s still not over for Pache, as major league pitchers will test his patience at the plate and if he can’t lay off major league offspeed stuff the way he could in Double-A we could see yet another round of regression in his on base skills. This started to show up even towards the end of his Triple-A season as after a rough start at the plate he became more aggressive over his last half in Gwinnett. His walk rate plummeted down the stretch and after spending most of the year well above 8% his walk rate was around 5% for his last few weeks in Gwinnett. Pache also needs to improve dramatically when he does get on base as he is overall a below average baserunner and despite above average speed he only has been successful on 60% of stolen base appearances.
Overall his hitting has been decent and pretty steady, but where we’ve seen the most improvement from Pache is his power production. Pache came into the system skinny and his lack of appropriate lower body usage led to him struggling to hit the ball with authority early on. Through his first two seasons - 750 plate appearances - Pache did not clear the fence once and his ISO was well below .100 with it sitting at .062 in Rome. He’s continuously added strength and tweaked his swing to allow him to tap into his raw power and the improvement there has shown up quickly. He finally broke through in 2018, and not only did he just hit a couple he ended up finishing the year with nine home runs between High-A and Double-A. He ranked in the Top 25% of the league in HR/FB for the Florida State League and he only improved going into 2019. It’s no secret that the Mississippi Braves have a tough park and league to hit in, but Pache was up to the challenge by hitting a career high 11 home runs in 104 games. His HR/FB jumped again to 9.9% which put him in the 73rd percentile in the league. He was an extra base machine for Mississippi and finished his tenure there with 47 of them and a career high .196 isolated power. His jumped to Gwinnett saw him struggle and he only hit one home run down the stretch, which is not necessarily unexpected but it’s worth noting that he has not really shown power yet in his 26 games at the highest level. Pache’s raw power has really never been a question and it’s always been a possibility that he could grow into true superstar potential, but the real thing holding him back is not power, it’s not strikeouts, and it’s not walks. Pache has one of the worst batted ball profiles you’ll see out of a top tier prospect.
The biggest obstacle for Pache now and for his career is his swing, and it leads him to hitting a lot of ground balls. For a guy with the ability to hit home runs the way Pache can it’s concerning to see him spend most of his career with a ground ball rate above 50%. Pache has made improvement in that category and spent all of last year with a ground ball rate below 50%, but the ground ball tendency is a lesser of the worries. His ground balls tend to not be hit with much authority as he’s constantly rolling over balls to the pull side and features a pull rate of well above 50%. While this will help him hit more home runs, with his tendency to hit ground balls it makes him also very susceptible to major shifts that can limit him on the offensive end. His fly ball rates have only once been above 30%, and often when he does hit fly balls they aren’t very effective. More than a quarter of his fly balls last season were infield pop ups and he’s never had a season in which his infield fly ball rate was below 20%. His extreme launch angle ranges impact his offensive potential, but fortunately he does make up for it with a fantastic line drive rate. His line drive rates have gone up every single season he’s been in professional baseball, from below 15% in rookie ball to peaking at 25.8% across both levels last season. His batted ball profile is improving and he’s hitting the ball effectively more often as he advances, but he still tends to frequently slide into major ground ball slumps. Even more concerning than the launch angle is the quality of the contact when he does hit it. His hard hit rates are significantly below average, last year saw him have a hard hit rate of only 25.6% and a soft hit rate above 20%. This is a significant improvement over 2018 when he had a hard hit rate of 20% and soft hit rate of 27%, but it’s still not good.
All in all, Pache’s statistical profile creates a cloudy picture. He clearly can make contact, he can draw walks, and he can hit for significant power but he sometimes struggles to do all of these things together. Last year was a milestone for Pache, as he clearly broke through and he posted a career high OPS of .802, but there’s still so many lingering questions that he has to answer. Pache’s glove has been major league ready since he was 18, but the bat is still well behind and he’s not going to be an average major league hitter right out of the gate. He’s a clear offensive upgrade over the alternative and he’ll continue to improve, but there are enough holes in his game that major league pitching will consistently expose his flaws. He’s a project, there’s no question about it, but the payoff here is immense. This is a guy that can easily hit 20+ home runs, hit around .280, and play elite center field defense. That’s an all star talent, something like a peak of Mike Cameron that can give you 4-6 WAR every season, and if he continues to improve at the rate he has there’s no question he can unlock it. It will take time, patience, and a whole lot of very bad months but Cristian Pache should be at least a decent major league hitter. He’s already an elite defender, and that alone will make him a net-positive player. Whether his bat is good or just good enough will determine how much of an impact he makes in Atlanta through his career.