Ironically, Jake Hager reminds some evaluators a little bit of a player who has been the bane of every Rays fan’s existence ever since the inception of the Rays: Derek Jeter. Is Hager the talent that Jeter was? Probably not. But in addition to his nice tools, Hager possesses a quality that few have: the drive to be the best player he can possibly be, not just for himself, but for sake of the team. The Rays are loaded with shortstop prospects, but Hager’s leadership and drive makes him a special case.
Hager isn’t just a natural leader. He has some other skills as well. Hager, who will turn 19 in March, is a slightly bigger shortstop than Jeter at 6-1, 180. He has a graceful swing that induces line drive and after line drive, and as expected from a bigger player, he has some pop. His power is average overall, meaning he could be a 15 home run hitter in the big leagues, which would be very good for a shortstop. Especially one of Hager’s caliber defensively. Hager’s defensive proficiency is hard to find in such a young shortstop. He has smooth motions along with a very good arm. Hager speed is just average, sub-par for a shortstop, but he has very quick reflexes so that doesn’t really affect him in the field. Hager showcased his skills in his first professional exposure as a member of the Princeton Rays.
After signing on June 21st for $963,000, the Rays sent Hager to their more advanced Rookie-level team, the Princeton Rays. There, Hager played nicely overall, hitting .269 with 11 doubles, 1 triple, 4 homers, 17 RBI, 5 stolen bases (but 7 CS), a .305 OBP, and a .399 SLG in 47 games. He only walked 9 times in 204 plate appearances (4.4% percent of his plate appearances), but he was elite at putting the ball in play, striking out in just 12.7% of his plate appearances and posting an 80% IP% (in-play percentage) compared to the league averages of a staggering 21.4% and 65.1%. Hopefully Hager has some more plate discipline than that, but the bottom line was that Hager could handle whatever opposing pitchers were throwing at him. He actually posted just a .294 BAbip compared to the league avearage of .321 despite a 13.7% LD% (according to Minor League Central), and he still hit a solid .269 compared to the league average of .261. He does need work at stealing bases (he should be at least a 10 SB threat, and he better get those 10 without getting caught 14 times), but he also showed some decent power, posting a .130 ISO compared to the league ISO of .143, pretty good. It was a relatively small sample size, but Hager showed flashes of his offensive skills.
Defensively, Hager was ridiculous by 18 year old shortstop standards. Among Appalachian League shortstops that played at least 20 games at the postion, Hager ranked 3rd in fielding percentage at .962 despite ranking 3rd in the league in range factor per game (meaning that he had the 4th-most balls hit to him per game as any shortstop in the league). Every player that ranked above him in either category was older than him (two 21 year olds and a 19 year old). The Appy League does have just 10 teams, but that’s still extremely impressive. For what’s it’s worth, Derek Jeter had just a .913 Fld% and a 4.18 RF/G in 57 games at age 18 compared to Hager’s .962 and 4.37 marks.
Hager is just getting started as a professional baseball player. But he has the ability and the intangibles to be a nice big leaguer for the Rays someday. He has talent and he supplements his talent with his leadership. Hager is a unique prospect. He has a world of talent but he doesn’t get conceited because he knows that the only thing that matters is the team. And that’s gives him an advantage compared to some of the Rays’ other prospects. The Rays won’t be dealing with immaturity with Hager. He’s mature for his age, both on and off the field, and he makes everybody around him, players and coaches, appreciate him. Hager is the kind of player the Rays love. He has great character and he plays great defense, and by the way, he’s a good hitter. Hager has a long way to go, but keep an eye on him. He’s a very good prospect and he makes everyone about him better.