Does this postseason star have an offensive breakout in store?

March 11th, 2023

Given the way it ended, Astros shortstop ’s rookie season can only be viewed as an enormous success.

The 25-year-old had big shoes to fill after longtime Houston shortstop departed as a free agent, but he held down the starting job all season and ultimately became the second rookie and ninth player overall to earn the LCS and World Series MVP Awards in the same year, helping Houston win its second title with a bevy of clutch hits. Based on his regular season performance, he also finished fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year race and won a Gold Glove Award.

He’ll play for another team with championship aspirations in the 2023 World Baseball Classic when he suits up for the Dominican Republic squad, which is scheduled to play its first game of this year’s Classic on Saturday night against Venezuela (7 p.m. ET on FS1).

However, for as great as Peña looked at the plate in the postseason, he’ll still have a lot to prove on offense when the 2023 season gets under way on March 30.

While Peña provided exceptional value with his defense and baserunning, his bat was essentially league average according to wRC+ (102), and below average according to xwOBA (.300), which is based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks. Steamer projects Peña for a 99 wRC+ in 2023.

But what if Peña’s postseason performance is a sign of things to come? It’s not like it came out of nowhere. In fact, the Peña we saw in October looked a lot like the guy who excelled over the first two months of 2022, recording a 132 wRC+ and a .337 xwOBA.

It’s easy to forget that Peña had only 133 plate appearances above High-A entering last season. Growing pains were inevitable, whether they came in April or June. What's most important is that Peña eventually got back to what made him successful in the first place once the postseason started.

These were the biggest differences between the Peña we saw at the beginning and end of the year, and the one who struggled during the summer.

1) He had a more disciplined approach

While Peña was still a free-swinger during his best months of 2022, he at least reined in his tendency to swing at pitches out of the strike zone a bit.

Peña’s chase rate, 2022:

More specifically, Peña made notable plate-discipline strides while batting with two strikes in the playoffs, recording a 36.1% chase rate in those situations -- it was 46.8% over the final four months of the regular season -- which coincided with a massive improvement in his two-strike performance.

One of Peña's biggest playoff hits, a go-ahead solo homer on a hanging breaking ball from in Game 5 of the World Series, came after he laid off an 0-2 slider away and a 1-2 sinker down and in. If it was earlier in the year, there's a good chance he would have swung at one of those chase pitches. But he waited for a better pitch to hit and didn't miss it when he got it.

All told, he went 8-for-32 (.250) and slugged .500 in two-strike counts during the postseason. With two strikes in the regular season, he was a .156 hitter with a .252 slugging percentage.

Peña was also less aggressive at the start of his plate appearances, posting a much lower first-pitch swing rate in April/May and the postseason than he did the rest of the year.

Peña's first-pitch swing rate, 2022

In turn, he saw a higher percentage of pitches with the count in his favor -- 26.1% combined in April/May and the postseason vs. 19.3% the rest of the year.

Finding balance is important for Peña when it comes to his first-pitch swing decisions. The shortstop had a lot of success when he connected on the first offering, producing eight homers and a 1.179 OPS in 92 plate appearances ending on the first pitch during the regular season. But in the 292 plate appearances where he fell behind 0-1, either by coming up empty on a swing or looking at strike one, his OPS was just .519.

2) He crushed in-zone pitches

Due to his tendency to expand the zone, even at his best, Peña needs to take advantage when pitchers throw him something to hit to counterbalance the negative effects of swinging at so many bad pitches.

From June 1 through the end of the regular season, he didn't do that, recording a .329 xwOBA on pitches in the strike zone. But in April and May, his xwOBA on in-zone pitches was .402. In the postseason, it was .456.

Peña’s hard-hit rate (the percentage of batted balls with a 95+ mph exit velocity) also began to tick back up late in the regular season before spiking to 47.7% in the playoffs, a mark that resembled what he did in April.

Peña’s hard-hit rate, 2022:

  • April: 49.1%
  • May: 32.3%
  • June: 33.3%
  • July: 33.8%
  • August: 32%
  • September/October: 40%
  • Postseason: 47.7%

Overall, Peña’s 36.7% hard-hit rate (not including the postseason) only ranked in the 29th percentile across MLB last season. However, he managed to maximize the value of his hard contact, recording a barrel (batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, typically resulting in extra-base hits and homers) on 9.7% of his batted balls.

Peña’s barrel rate ranked in the 65th percentile. Add in his 95th percentile sprint speed and 92nd percentile outs above average figure and the shortstop was on an exclusive list with two others.

90th+ percentile in sprint speed, 90th+ percentile in OAA, 60th+ percentile in barrel rate:

  • Julio Rodríguez
  • Michael Harris II
  • Jeremy Peña

Peña's skill set is already one of the most diverse in the game. If he can tap into his power more consistently, like he did early last season and in the postseason, he could be in for a major breakout at the plate in 2023.