Quick answer: No idea. I don’t know the future.
A slightly longer answer: Hopefully soon, but recent trends since early July aren’t promising.
We’ve all known for a while about what Jeremy Peña does really well on the baseball diamond. Generally speaking, he is an above-average shortstop defensively, although his defensive metrics have dipped this season. But as long as his bat remains around the league average, even slightly below, with some pop, we’re looking at a two-to-three-win player. Those kinds of players aren’t stars, sure, but they are plenty valuable.
Peña’s offensive value last season was primarily driven by his ability to hit for power. He did hit 22 home runs and posted the sixth-highest ISO among all qualified shortstops. Those numbers helped compensate for a hitter who has had issues getting on base. There were peaks and valleys in his performance, but, overall, he was a slightly above-league average hitter (102 wRC+). He regularly feasted on four-seam fastballs and cutters, helping to mitigate his issues against breaking pitches. A leg kick adjustment propelled his offensive performance to close out last season into the postseason.
Hitting for power was the one aspect of Peña’s offensive profile that I felt most comfortable about heading into 2023. Even with moderately improved plate discipline, he wasn’t going to become an on-base machine. But if his on-base percentage became something more akin to average (.320 OBP or higher), combined with his power, then it is easy to hold optimism for his ultimate offensive ceiling. Lo and behold, Peña has actually posted a roughly league-average OBP (.323) this season. His walk rate has climbed to nearly 7% with a 4% decline in his strikeout rate. That’s progress and something we’ve all wanted to see from the sophomore shortstop.
So, why is Peña still hitting around league average if his plate discipline has improved?
There is a variety of reasons. For one, his power numbers have clearly sagged, with only 10 home runs in 574 plate appearances. He had 22 dingers in 558 plate appearances in 2022. He’s also struggling against fastballs this season along with breaking pitches still giving him fits. It isn’t a wonder that his power declined when he can’t hit the one class of pitches he routinely punished last season. In essence, it is due to his sudden ability to not hit one out of the park. More precisely, he is drilling more balls on the ground and putting less in the air. For a hitter like Peña, it doesn’t matter as much if his exit velocity numbers have remained roughly the same as has been the case this season. It is all about the batted ball distribution. Ground balls, after all, are the least valuable of all batted ball types.
2023 wOBA by Batted Ball Types (League)
Ground Balls: .228
Line Drives: .656
Fly Balls: .441
In 2023, Peña has seen his ground ball rate spike over 8% with his line drive and fly ball rates dropping by roughly the same amount. His barrel rate has essentially more than halved compared to last season. While his plate discipline has improved, Peña has essentially given away those gains by not being able to hit for power. Honestly, I don’t assume many, if any, fans were expecting this kind of development.
As for Peña’s last home run, it occurred all the way back on July 5 against the Rockies at Minute Maid Park. In his subsequent 249 plate appearances, he has hit .277/.347/.357 with a 99 wRC+ 16 extra-base hits. A .080 ISO and a .339 BABIP. His ground ball rate has ballooned to nearly 60% since July 6. But if we limit our view to only September, there is a bit of room for optimism as Peña is hitting more fly balls again (38.1%). These are all small samples, yes, but at least it is something to monitor. Perhaps we’ll see another Peña before October sooner rather than later?