“There is no heavier burden than great potential”—Charlie Brown
When I was 20-something years old, someone pinned that cartoon to the bulletin board above my desk. And it may be my favorite Charlie Brown quote. (See cartoon here.) Maybe it portrays fans’ depiction of shortstop Jeremy Pena.
Did Pena’s World Series MVP award set the bar too high for fans’ hopes? Maybe. After 2022, some articles treated Pena as a superstar. After the loss of Carlos Correa, did fans’ desire for a perennial all star replacement get in the way of realistic expectations? Again, that may be true for some fans.
I frequently see comments like, “What happened to Jeremy Pena?” or in the words of a recent fanpost: “Did the real Jeremy Pena fall down a well?”
But maybe this has been the real Jeremy Pena all along. With the exception of the small sample playoffs, Pena is pretty much the same offensive player as last year. His xwOBA is exactly the same as last year (.300). His exit velocity is very similar to last year (88.0 vs. 88.1). ZIPS (Update) projected a OPS+ of 95 for this season and his current OPS+ is 93. Pena currently may possess an OPS 7% worse than the average major league hitter. But his OPS+ is close to average for a ML shortstop (96). And there is nothing inherently wrong in hitting like an average shortstop.
But both last year and this year, Pena has shown an exceptional amount of streakiness in his offensive stats. And that type of “up and down” offense can lead to questions like “who is the real Jeremy Pena?” The comparison below shows Pena’s OPS+ by month in 2022 and 2023. In both seasons, he has a couple of months of exceptionally good offense accompanied by intervening months of poor offense.
OPS+ (Mar/April, May, June, July, August, Sept.)
2022 124 / 143 / 93 / 84 / 49 / 122
2023 107 / 99 / 66 / 46 / 141 / 75
Unless Pena dramatically picks it up in the remaining 6 days of the season, his OPS+ will be substantially less than 2022. (Current 93 vs. 101 in 2022) Pena’s last two weeks (OPS+ of 63) doesn’t seem to point to a rebound in the last week and a half of the season.
One of the most notable characteristics of Pena’s current season is the significant drop off in HRs—and power, generally. He hit 10 HRs through July but has hit no home runs since then. Comparing 2022 to 2023, Pena’s Isolated Power (ISO) has dropped more than 50 points. Given the precipitous loss of power, it’s surprising that his OPS+ has only dropped 8 points.
And that leads to a second development this season, which explains how Pena mitigated the impact of declining power. Pena has modestly improved both his walk rate and strike out rate leading to an improved On Base Percent (OBP), .321 vs. .289. A good sized increase in BABIP also helped fuel the OBP (.298 in 2022 vs. current .321). The BABIP influence could lead to some OBP inconsistency in the future. Jeremy Pena’s improved K/BB rate and OBP was a very necessary step, and in the long run probably outweighs the loss of power.
As for the loss of power, some analysts had concluded early this season that Pena’s 2022 offense had a fair amount of luck. In particular, Pena’s hard hit rate and average exit velocity in 2022 didn’t support the power he showed last year. Pena’s hard hit rate and average exit velocity did not improve this year, and in fact declined slightly.
Fangraphs’ player page for Pena says his 2022 reflected an “over aggressive” batting style combined with “pull power.” However, in 2023, Pena’s OPS+ split on balls pulled to RF is only 46 (compared to 118 in 2023).
The only positive takeaway is the hopeful thought that the Jeremy Pena with an improved OBP could add some of his power back next year. And that could result in an above average offensive player.
Most descriptions of Pena lead off by calling him a very good defensive shortstop. However, Pena’s defense at shortstop has declined this season. In 2022, the gold glove winning shortstop had a Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) of 13, but so far in 2023, his DRS is 1. He is still an above average fielder, but barely. Last year, 28% of Pena’s fielding plays were out of the shift, but the shift has been banned in 2023. It’s impossible to know how much of his drop off may be due to fielding the ball without the benefit of a shift. Pena continues to engage in a partial shift (within the limits of the rule) about 5% of the time. But so far, the results have been unsuccessful (wOBA .507 vs. .257 in the shift last year).
How should I conclude this analysis? Pena is roughly an average starting shortstop. But he could be an above average shortstop next year with some improvement on both the offensive and defensive side.
Fangraphs Playoff Odds
As I have done in previous articles, I will summarize the current Astros playoff odds, as calculated by the Fangraphs model. After the first game of the series in Seattle, the Mariners odds are on shaky ground.
Astros 11.5% Division Odds / 75.5% Playoff Odds
Mariners 2.3% Division Odds / 28% Playoff Odds
Rangers 86.3% Division Odds / 98% Playoff Odds
The Astros odds for winning the World Series declined to 9.6%