One reason why the Astros felt comfortable with the idea of Carlos Correa signing elsewhere two offseasons ago was due to the emergence of Jeremy Peña. Honestly, it was mainly about the long-term nature of any contract along with the money, but Peña was a secondary reason. It was also a bold decision at the time. However, the sting of losing Correa was lessened a bit by how Peña performed last season (3.4 fWAR in 136 games), culminating with ALCS and World Series MVP honors.
Peña’s major league career up to now has had an interesting arc. He started strong with a 127 wRC+ in his first 194 career plate appearances along with impressive defense. The defense aspect has, for the most part, remains strong, but his offensive output has noticeably fluctuated. Breaking pitches — mostly sliders — were an issue and opposing pitchers quickly caught on. He had a particularly rough summer last year, hitting .222/.248/.365 from June 8 through the end of August. A leg kick adjustment to assist his pitch recognition in early September helped set the stage for an offensive resurgence in his final 121 plate appearances (123 wRC+) that carried over into the postseason. There may not be a more famous late-season adjustment in franchise history. While the clip below does contain a 2023 at-bat, the adjustment itself mirrors what Peña did in 2022.
As I wrote back in early June, Peña has shown maturation as a hitter, specifically with better plate discipline compared to last season. At the time, Peña had a 106 wRC+ on the season. I was hopeful that this improved plate discipline could lead him to become a more consistent hitter this summer. Unfortunately, Peña’s production at the plate has plummeted in the past seven or so weeks.
Since June 1: .210/.268/.275, 2 HR, 51 wRC+ in 149 plate appearances
Fastballs, in particular, have become a major issue this season as evidenced by his -7.2 Run Value on the season. As reported later in June by Chandler Rome of The Athletic, Peña and the coaching staff brought back his leg kick, in hopes of generating more power to bolster a lineup short on power. With improved plate discipline, it was hoped that the return of the leg kick wouldn’t prove too detrimental and it would boost his numbers against fastballs. While his numbers didn’t bounce back in June against fastballs (-3.9 Run Value), there has been a bit of a boost in July (-1.8 Run Value), although he has had exactly one extra-base hit since mid-June.
Fastballs also aren’t the only issue for Peña. Breaking pitches — curveballs, sliders, and sweepers — are causing him a lot of grief once again. Since reinstating his leg kick on June 15 against the Nationals, at least part-time, Peña’s production against breaking pitches has plummeted, slashing .093/.152/.093 with only four hits (-7.1 Run Value). There were instances when Peña didn’t appear to utilize his leg kick or at least a lesser version. Makes sense, especially in situations when he expects a breaking ball or in two-strike counts. It is interesting to note Peña’s leg kick doesn’t appear nearly as pronounced or utilized as often as it was back in mid-June when he made his initial adjustment. It is still present, however, in some fashion. There are stretches of game footage I’ve watched when he utilizes it more often than others. For example, it appears he had a more pronounced leg kick against the Angels and Rockies compared with the series against the A’s last weekend.
Regardless of any adjustment, however, Peña’s overall numbers have suffered this season. He’s had a -9.4 Run Value as a hitter with only two home runs since June 15 against all pitch types. The purpose of reintroducing his leg kick was to provide more power in the lineup, but that plan hasn’t materialized with productive results. While his defense does provide a solid floor for his value, we’re entering turbulent waters with his bat. If his power doesn’t rebound, Peña is in for a rough two-plus months to finish the season.