Will the Real Jeremy Peña Stand Up?

Jeremy Peña
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Back in April, 23 of our writers and contributors made predictions about the 2022 season. When guessing who would be the AL Rookie of the Year, nine different players were named, with Bobby Witt Jr. and Julio Rodríguez leading the pack. Not found among those nine names was the starting shortstop for the Astros, a rookie faced with the difficult task of replacing incumbent Carlos Correa, who had gone to the Twins. Jeremy Peña wasn’t pegged as a ROY frontrunner, but for much of the early season, he looked like a sudden superstar. However, he’s struggled offensively in recent months, raising some questions about whether the real Peña is the player with the .878 OPS through mid-May, the one with a .586 OPS since the All-Star Game, or somewhere in the middle.

Top AL Rookies Through May 17th
Jeremy Peña .282 .341 .536 148 1.4
Joe Ryan 8.6 2.9 0.7 2.4 3.4 0.8
Steven Kwan .270 .370 .380 119 0.7
Julio Rodríguez .265 .326 .364 103 0.7
Jose Siri .225 .286 .380 90 0.6
Brock Burke 12.6 2.3 0.5 1.4 1.7 0.6
Royce Lewis .308 .325 .564 153 0.5
Dany Jiménez 9.4 2.9 0.0 0.6 2.0 0.5
George Kirby 7.2 0.9 0.0 0.9 1.8 0.4
Daulton Jefferies 5.9 1.3 1.0 4.8 3.9 0.4
A.J. Puk 8.3 1.7 0.0 0.6 1.8 0.4
Zach Logue 7.1 2.6 1.0 2.0 3.9 0.3
Zach Jackson 11.9 6.2 0.0 3.1 2.7 0.3
Bryan Baker 9.6 1.9 0.6 4.5 2.8 0.3

Back in May, Witt, the preseason favorite, wasn’t even in the top 15; Rodríguez only put up a .544 OPS over April; and Adley Rutschman was days away from even debuting in the majors. While Peña wasn’t making Astros fans actually forget about Correa, he certainly did his best to alleviate any lingering worries about their former franchise building block heading to the AL Central. But since May 17, he has seen his control over the AL leaderboard disappear:

Top AL Rookies Since May 17th
Julio Rodríguez .285 .347 .544 156 4.0
Adley Rutschman .251 .358 .442 131 4.0
Steven Kwan .293 .366 .379 117 2.4
Jose Miranda .301 .358 .484 143 2.3
George Kirby 9.5 1.2 1.1 3.19 3.08 2.3
Bobby Witt Jr. .261 .304 .465 112 2.2
Oscar Gonzalez .291 .326 .464 122 1.5
Reid Detmers 9.9 3.8 1.0 3.44 3.76 1.4
Jhoan Duran 11.2 2.2 0.4 1.17 2.05 1.4
Félix Bautista 12.3 2.2 0.8 1.17 2.29 1.4
Jeremy Peña .241 .267 .374 80 1.2
Jose Siri .211 .261 .326 69 1.0
Vinnie Pasquantino .261 .353 .433 123 0.9
Kyle Isbel .211 .266 .347 70 0.8
Brayan Bello 8.7 4.8 0.0 5.79 2.96 0.8

That’s not to say that Peña hasn’t continued to be a solid overall player, but his largest contributions in recent months have been with leather rather than wood. With his range measured at five runs above average at shortstop by Statcast’s RAA and a total of nine runs over all facets of defense by our estimate, he hasn’t disappointed defensively, which has enabled him to remain a legitimate starter even with his offense dropping to disappointing levels. But he’s a far more exciting player with his spring offense, so what went wrong there?

First things first, the disappearance of power has been real, and it’s backed up with the hit ball data. After his first 100 balls hit into play, Peña’s average exit velocity stood at 92.2 mph. Since then, it’s steadily dropped, with the rolling average dipping under 85 mph recently. If you have the feeling that he’s making contact with less authority, you’re right.

Peña’s plate discipline is the most obvious weak spot in his offensive game, with 19 walks against 120 strikeouts currently. Free-swingers aren’t doomed to struggle — Javier Báez has had some big power seasons with atrocious plate discipline — but there’s a fine line, and when you’re not punishing mistakes well, you’re not paying off for your swings-and-misses. He’s making contact often enough to make ineffectual contact more often, leading to softer hits for ground balls. And he’s no longer punishing mistakes to the same degree, as he’s swinging at worse and worse pitches; in his last 40 games, he’s been 50% more likely to swing at a bad pitch than over his first 40 games. Not coincidentally, those first 40 games almost perfectly coincide with his May 17 high-water peak.

Unfortunately, Peña is providing a cautionary reminder about the interaction between plate discipline and power.

Is there hope? Well, the good news is that even with his struggles and the full version of ZiPS being aware of the extent of his plate discipline issues, his long-term projections are still better than they were at the start of the season. ZiPS originally had him projected at 1.7 WAR for the 2022 season, with peaks in the 2.5 range (the preseason projection can still be seen on his player page). The fact that we can be more confident about the quality of his defense raises his baseline considerably; ZiPS thought he was a +5.8 run/150 defensive player in the minors last year when his wrist wasn’t injured, but there was still a lot of uncertainty. While his bat has disappeared recently, the fact that he’s shown he can hit the ball pretty hard and that he can be more disciplined than the player he has been in recent months are also helpful things.

ZiPS Projection – Jeremy Peña
2023 .252 .319 .414 469 53 118 16 3 18 53 40 131 10 96 7 3.0
2024 .251 .320 .425 454 53 114 16 3 19 55 40 132 9 100 7 3.1
2025 .248 .321 .430 451 53 112 16 3 20 55 42 136 9 101 7 3.2
2026 .245 .318 .430 444 53 109 16 3 20 55 41 135 9 100 6 3.0
2027 .248 .320 .431 432 51 107 16 3 19 53 40 126 8 101 6 2.9
2028 .251 .322 .437 419 50 105 15 3 19 53 38 117 7 103 5 2.9
2029 .248 .318 .419 403 46 100 14 2 17 48 36 109 6 98 4 2.4

Overall, it’s been a productive year for Peña, despite the dropoff in his numbers. He’s remained healthy, he’s proven that he’s a valuable player defensively, and he’s shown that, at times, there’s a lot he can do with his bat. Whether he takes the next step depends on if he can do a more effective job at mitigating the things he can’t.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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1 year ago

Hmmph. Early on you guys (also taking shots at the then-commenters; disperses the impact) had Pena as an MVP candidate. Based on very small defensive samples. Yes I’m serving some ‘told you so!’ style crow here.

(if y’all had just said ‘boy this is a good start here!’, I’d have let it go, since it was)

1 year ago
Reply to  Richie

Gotta get clicks somehow, and to be fair, Pena had a historic start to his career. For that first month or so the Astros looked like geniuses for letting Correa go and, as the kids say, “secure the bag.”

Last edited 1 year ago by catmanwayne
1 year ago
Reply to  Richie

If you want to say ‘I told you so!’, you should bring the receipt.
Were people pleasantly surprised at how good Pena was early in the season?
Of course.
Were Fangraphs writers and commentators seriously discussing Pena as an MVP candidate?
Ehh… Having a hard time remembering that part.

1 year ago
Reply to  tung_twista

I went looking to see what I wrote about him and I think the only thing I wrote was that no one should expect to run an above average offensive line with that many strikeouts and that few walks. I still feel pretty comfortable with that assessment. The defense gives him a pretty high floor though given that his offense is going to be rather volatile.

1 year ago
Reply to  Richie

I don’t remember Fangraphs writers touting Pena as the end-of-the-season MVP in April, but if he was toward the top of the league in WAR, a reference to Pena being so good to this point that he’d be an MVP candidate if the season ended then would make sense. Why wouldn’t it? It would show how impactful he had been. If they predicted he was going to be the MVP candidate at yearend, then that would be pointing to the CF bleachers, but I somehow doubt they did that. And as for then-commenters (who I’m sure are still here) saying positive things about a young player off to a great start, that would also make sense. Anyway, it’s easy for you to get your reputation back. Just provide the offending links.

Last edited 1 year ago by MikeD