It may seem like a while ago, but at one point, Jeremy Peña was considered the favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year.
Entering June, he owned a .281/.329/.490 slash line with 8 home runs. Perhaps most impressively, he was striking out just 22.6 percent of the time, seemingly quelling any concerns about his contact skills. Defensively, the 24-year-old shortstop was as advertised. His flashy athleticism, strong arm and sound fundamentals were reminiscent of Carlos Correa’s consistently spectacular defense.
Overall, it appeared that the Astros had replaced one superstar shortstop with another.
But now with the regular season weeks away from concluding, things have changed. Peña has continued to impress in the field, but his production at the plate has fallen off a cliff. Following a so-so June, Peña finished the first half with an above-average 117 wRC+. Entering Friday, his second-half wRC+ stands at an abysmal 65.
Deteriorating plate discipline was quietly a factor heading into the All-Star break, and now with greatly diminished numbers in the second half of the season, it’s very much at the forefront.
A third-round pick in the 2018 draft, Peña appeared to be Correa 2.0 at the beginning of the season, and now it looks like he’s a light-hitting shortstop. While the latter is hard to dispute, it’s likely only temporary, just as the former was.
Back in May, it was easy to forget Peña’s inexperience in the upper minors. He was faring quite well against big-league pitching on top of providing stellar defense. His 133 plate appearances above A-ball became increasingly irrelevant. But now that he’s undeniably hit the rookie wall, it’s time to put Peña’s rookie campaign into context, utilizing the preseason projection from ZiPS.
Peña’s current line of .249/.285/.405 with 17 home runs and 10 stolen bases (12 attempts) may not be terribly shiny, but it’s more or less what was expected of him offensively.
Independent of his offensive output, however, is an overall profile that’s surpassed expectations, at least when it comes to WAR — in addition to his 2.7 fWAR, Peña owns a 3.9 bWAR.
Elite glove work has Peña leading all shortstops with 15 DRS. To boot, OAA puts him in the top 5 percent among all fielders. While defense has been the UConn product’s calling card since his college days, it’s safe to say that he wasn’t supposed to immediately become one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, if not the best.
Being able to consistently make an impact in the field has helped alleviate Peña’s volatile bat. Providing plus, if not plus-plus defense at a premium position on the diamond is valuable alone, so even during stretches of anemic production at the plate, Peña’s still a key member of the starting nine.
Considering Peña was afforded hardly any time to refine his bat at the Triple-A level after skipping Double-A, it’s fairly remarkable that he’s been able to produce around the league-average mark, which is more than acceptable when coupled with his defense.
This wasn’t quite the rookie campaign that many had envisioned for Peña back when he was swinging a hot bat, but given his inexperience entering the season, 2022 has been a solid debut for the Astros’ shortstop of the future.