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Jeremy Peña’s Production Against Fastballs Has Plummeted In August

The rookie shortstop is currently in a significant rut at the plate.

MLB: Houston Astros at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Last month, I wrote about how Jeremy Peña’s offensive value was capped by chasing breaking pitches. Pitchers had adjusted to Peña’s tendencies as a hitter as they realized a steady diet of breaking and, now, offspeed pitches away from the heart of the plate could exploit his weaknesses as a hitter. This plan hasn’t changed much as the rookie shortstop continues to chase plenty of pitches out of the strike zone. Peña, in fact, has taken a step backward in the month of August in this regard.

As much promise as Peña has demonstrated in his young career, his overall performance at the plate in August has been disappointing. As of July 28, the nearly 25-year-old had a 118 wRC+ across 319 plate appearances, representing an offensive performance of 18 percent above league average on the season; fast forward to August 22, and that figure has dropped 99, which now means Peña is hitting slightly below league average on the season. From July 29 through August 21, Peña’s production has simply plummeted, as evidenced by his .190/.213/.274 slash line and 33 wRC+ across 89 plate appearances. That impressive power he demonstrated earlier in the season, with Saturday’s home run notwithstanding, has largely evaporated.

Those 89 plate appearances have caused Peña’s rookie season to lose a bit of its luster. While plenty of those struggles can be attributed to his ongoing issues against breaking and offspeed pitches, his recent performance against fastballs is why his value as a hitter has noticeably suffered in August. Below is Peña’s performance against fastballs from April through July.

  • .296/.367/.521, 8 HR, 13.8% K%, 6.9% BB%, .385 wOBA

A respectable batting line, right? Not so much in August, however.

  • .265/.286/.412, 1 HR, 22.9% K%, 2.9% BB%, .303 wOBA

While his batting average didn’t fall off too much, it is also a batting average in a small sample. As we can gather from the other figures above, the dropoff against fastballs is rather dramatic for Peña. In fact, he has only collected three barrels in the month of August against fastballs, with all converting into outs. He collected 14 barrels against fastballs from April through July with a 1.477 wOBA. This development isn’t encouraging in the slightest, especially as the postseason looms and the quality of pitching becomes increasingly difficult.

Interestingly enough, opposing pitchers have started throwing more fastballs to Peña by a noticeable measure in 0-0 counts, up nearly 20 percent from July (45.4 percent) to August (64.5 percent). He’s also seeing an increasing supply of breaking pitches in all two-strike counts, with up nearly ten percent from June to August.

Opposing pitchers have found what works against Peña: A steady diet of fastballs early when he is a bit less likely to swing, then entice a chase on a breaking or offspeed pitch when they reach a two-strike count. In fact, Peña has been more apt to swing at breaking or offspeed pitches in 0-0 counts than fastballs in the past two months. Peña was arguably at his best as a hitter when swinging more at early count fastballs.

One possible counter for Peña is to look for more fastballs in 0-0 counts, especially if it is one he can handle. Considering his overall performance against fastballs before August, he should hunt for those before opposing pitchers have the situation in place to best use their other offerings. If he can convert some of those early fastballs into hits, then opposing pitchers must reevaluate their strategy in early counts. So far in August, pitchers have been successful in forcing Peña into suboptimal counts and finishing him off with a breaking or offspeed pitch. The onus is now on the rookie to change that approach.

There is plenty to like about Peña as a hitter in the long term, especially if he makes the necessary adjustments at the plate. The power is real, but it all hinges on his improvement at pitch selection and forcing opposing pitchers to throw more fastballs his way in more favorable counts. Frankly, the steep learning curve ought not to be a surprise for a rookie who, before this season, had 133 plate appearances above Class-A in the minors. But for a club with World Series aspirations, Peña’s bat needs to rebound to some degree as October approaches.