The rookie shortstop has already surpassed expectations in his debut season.
There were various instances in the offseason when I caught myself wondering if the Astros would benefit from acquiring a veteran shortstop in the event Carlos Correa signed elsewhere. I even had a template in the works of what a Paul DeJong trade could possibly look like in January! Hey, the lockout hit all of us hard in different ways. While I had high hopes for Jeremy Peña, I had my doubts about how quickly he would acclimate as a hitter to major league pitching, although I bought his power development last season.
It’s a good thing that I am not involved in any capacity with the Astros as I’m sure we would be missing out on one of the best seasons in franchise history we’ve seen from a rookie, albeit it’s only mid-June. But Peña’s performance in his first 53 career games — .277/.330/.477 — has been nothing short than impressive. In fact, by fWAR, the 24-year-old rookie is among the most valuable position players this season at 2.6 wins above replacement. For additional context to how well he is performing, Peña is tied with Yordan Alvarez and ahead of Kyle Tucker (2.3 fWAR). Needless to state, it isn’t exactly a development that I expected in early March.
Peña’s development into an above-average shortstop — arguably one of the best to open the season — is largely thanks to his progression as a hitter. While there is the occasional hiccup, his glove and work in the field is in line with his reputation as a minor leaguer. That defensive skillset was why I always felt comfortable in estimating a one- to two-win performance in 2022 by combining that skillset with a roughly league average bat. I believe it was a reasonable expectation, especially if that power translated to the majors.
But, again, it’s the development of his bat that has driven his value this high, specifically his power as his slugging percentage, isolated power, and home runs all rank in the top-three of qualified shortstops. That’s something to appreciate as Peña had the unenviable task of filling the large shoes left behind by Correa. And it wasn’t expected, at least by most fans.
The question now is how will Peña perform as the season progresses through the summer. Unfortunately for the rookie he has regressed in June, hitting .257/.333/.371 in recent weeks. His power decline with a .114 isolated power, in particular, has caught my eye. By wRC+ (111), he remains an above-average hitter, but it remains something to watch. While a run-of-the-mill slump isn’t out of the question, it is interesting to not how breaking pitches, particularly sliders, are giving him issues at the plate. Four-seam fastballs are also giving the rookie issues as well, but I’d look for improvement there in the coming weeks.
But if Peña’s hit tool falters a bit, his overall offensive value takes a hit as he still doesn’t draw many walks and strikes out a fair amount, as partly evidenced with a swinging strike rate in the top-fifteen at 15.1 percent. While the power has translated into positive results, it does make him a bit more one-dimensional as a hitter. That said, Peña’s track record indicates that he isn’t afraid to make adjustments and I’m quite curious to sea how he closes the month.