The Next Astros Shortstop- Jeremy Pena
Updated: Dec 23, 2021
Many in the fan base want the Astros to sign Correa no matter what the cost is. Some have rumored Trevor Story is also a back-up option. We have shown how close the stats are Correa and Story.
WHAT IF neither signs with Houston? Who will be the starting shortstop for the Astros in 2022? It might be Bregman for a short period if the current service time manipulation rules remain, but I do not expect Bregman will play a majority of the time at SS in 2022.
The answer is Jeremy Pena. In this article we will discuss Pena from two angles
ClintTheScout will break down what he sees in The Future with Jeremy Pena and the details why Pena may have made the step change in power in 2021 we saw in his limited plate appearance.
LarryTheGM takes a look at Pena by the numbers to help Astros fans understand what they can expect.
It would of been ideal to have had Pena play all year at AAA so that the Astros would have a full season of data regarding Pena before counting on him to take over at SS.
However, quoting from Jake Kaplan on 4/21/21:
"Jeremy Peña’s left wrist injury that required surgery Wednesday could have significant ramifications for not only the shortstop prospect’s timeline but also for the team’s 2022 roster composition.......
Peña, who sustained the injury diving for a ball in an exhibition game last week at the Astros’ alternate training site in Corpus Christi, Texas could still make it to the majors next year."
Those words were prophetic and frame the challenge the Astros face now. Pena played his first game at AAA on 8/28/21 and finished the season with only 133 plate appearances in AAA.
ClintTheScout has some interesting observations of what he sees in Pena.
The future with Jeremy Pena- ClintTheScout
I’ve been watching as much as I can of Jeremy Pena. From highlights of the 2021 season to some clips from his time in college, I’ve tried to accumulate all the visuals possible.
I then found myself watching Carlos Correa highlights. I’ll be honest, it was difficult to digest. The defensive prowess of Correa will be the most missed. However, I do believe Pena can grow and be an above average defensive shortstop. Pena also has plenty of upside with the bat. We will miss Carlos, but I don’t believe we will struggle without him.
I don’t want to bore you with details you can find online, but rather get into his fundamentals. Pena is an interesting hitter. It never appears that he is trying to do too much at the plate. He stays within his fundamentals and drives the baseball wherever its thrown. He has power to all sides of the field, even clearing the center field wall on several occasions. He has a natural launch to his swing and doesn’t have to overswing to generate power.
One of the things I’m excited to see from Pena is his ability to adjust to off-speed pitches. He doesn’t have floating hands. Floating hands means they do not drift towards the ball while it travels to the plate. It is common for hitters to be so fixated on the fastball, that they’re hands drift into the swing prior to recognition of the pitch. That’s unnecessary movement and a correction must be made. Pena jumps on fastballs and recognizes off-speed pitches. His simple approach and compact swing allow him to adjust and drive baseballs.
In college, he had a very deliberate cock of the bat out more in front of his head. See below:
In time, Pena has worked to re-align this cock of his bat to be more behind him. See below images from his time with the AAA Skeeters in 2021:
The pics below are from his November games with LIDOM (the Dominican Winter League):
Notice the bat is now much more behind his head, still cocked towards the pitcher. This allows him to swing the bat on a much more efficient plane. In college, he was re-routing the bat from in front of him, behind his hands and dropping into the swing slot. Now, he’s able to work much more directly from behind him and his hands directly into his swing slot.
In the first photo, the bat clearly covers part of his hat from the face-on view. Although the second photo is from the front, the bat is clearly behind his head, thus letting him work the bat into the slot much more efficiently. This can attribute to better bat speed, more power, and the ability to stay back and avoid the drifting hands.
I know what you’re thinking, that’s not a big deal!! I understand, but from my perspective it’s been a game changer for him. The best power and speed is the most efficient power and speed. Re-routing the barrel of the baseball prior to swinging into the slot takes time. Pitches traveling 95mph or more are tough to catch up to. Add this re-routing to having to stay back and wait for an off-speed pitch, it can be difficult. A baseball bat is 33 inches long or longer for some hitters. The bat moves on a much larger plane than the hands. This adjustment allows him to get the speed where it matters most, at contact.
I’ve seen few clips of his defensive plays. Prospects Live grades his as a plus defender, with potential for a long-term future at shortstop. They grade his arm above average but can rush his mechanics on rare occasions. He has great speed which is useful on the bases and in the field.
All in all, Pena has played in 182 games with 690 at-bats. The sample size is small on a player who has become more and more interesting since being drafted. The day has always loomed of Correa moving on, and the weight of this falls on Pena. It is important for us to understand how raw a talent Pena is, and just how young his career is at this point.
LarryTheGM Note: I added this video of Pena on 11/7/21
Pena By The Numbers- LarryTheGM
Are the Astros seriously going to turn the reins of this championship caliber team to a ROOKIE starting Shortstop? How good can Pena really be in that situation on this team?
Those are the key questions.
I have been fascinated by projection models that attempt to predict the performance of players in their rookie season based on minor league data alone.
The Steamer projection for Pena on Fangraphs.com is
If Pena is as good of a fielder as some think he is, that is pretty good for a player in his rookie year.
What if Clint is right about swing adjustments leading to more power for Pena? This led me to ask can I create my own projection for Pena based on the recent performance of shortstops making the jump from AAA to MLB.
Disclaimer- this is about to describe HOW I got my answer. Feel Free to SKIP ahead if this is too much detail for you.
I went back to SS that got significant PA in 2017 and 2018 in AAA and compare those numbers for the same players in their rookie MLB seasons in 2018 and 2019. I wanted players with at least 200 PA in both so that their performance would be statistically significant. I restricted my population to SS to account for the potential challenge of manning the key infield position in one's rookie year.
Since there was no minor league season in 2020, there is no way to use AAA stats for SS in 2020 and see how they did in the MLB in 2021. The short MLB season in 2020 also makes using 2019 AAA data and comparing to the more variable 2020 data unwise. The 2019 AAA baseballs also tended to skew that data.
Here are the SS I used for this analysis and their AAA data.
Here is the MLB data for those players in their rookie years
I took a ratio between the two data sets. This ratio ties each players AAA stats to a projection of how that play will do in the MLB the next year.
Note there are some GREAT players in this group and not so great. The average of this population is a fairly average MLB SS.
This is an oversimplified version of how some of the projection systems work. They are more sophisticated than this.
I averaged the nine values to get an overall ratio for each statistic listed.
The last line shows my overall average MLB/AAA ratio for an average AAA player. Now we will apply that to Pena's 2021 numbers.
I chose to add the Dominican Winter League stats to Pena's AAA statistics because his AAA sample size was so small. This is potential flaw in this system but it mitigates what I otherwise believe would be way too optimistic projections.
12/22/21 Update- I revised the Dominican Winter League stats.
While you may not be impressed with an OPS of 0.783 in the Dominican Winter League, it should be noted that the AVERAGE OPS is 0.638 (average SLG 0.326!). Relative to the league, NO ONE who has as many PAs as Pena has a higher OPS than Pena.
Dominican League stats from (https://en.winterballdata.com/estadisticas2021-22)
Here are the top 20 players by PA in the Dominican Winter League.
At 0.782, Pena is 22 points higher than anyone else on the list. His 10 XBH are tied for fourth highest in the league.
As it is the "LGM" (LarryTheGM projection) for Pena predicts a much higher SLG and OPS and more strikeouts.
My official prediction for Pena would be what Clint is seeing that leads to more power IS REAL and that the best projection is probably and average of the "LGM" and "FG stm" (Fangraph's Steamer).
My best projection for Pena is
BB%- 5.5%. (need to focus on plate discipline)
K%- 27.1% (cut the strikeouts down!)
OBP- 0.305 (get more walks- a theme?)
Slug- 0.438 (Pretty good! 2021 Astros team average 0.444, 2021 MLB average 0.411)
OPS- 0.743 (Above Average! 2021 Astros team average 0.783, 2021 MLB average 0.728)
If Pena lives up to THIS projection as an above average hitter with his strong defense, there would be no reason to sign a high priced Free Agent SS.
Also, these numbers are not that different from 2020 Correa. Just Saying. Who would you rather have
0.743 OPS Pena in his rookie year or
0.752 career OPS Story away from Coors Field?
So, are the Astros seriously going to turn the reins of this championship caliber team to a ROOKIE starting Shortstop? What if I told you that rookie SS would be BETTER than Correa was in 2018 and 2020? It would seem that they are currently focused on less risky options while seeming confident that they could roll with Pena if they needed to.
What do you think about Pena? Has your opinion of Pena changed after reading this article? Let's talk about Pena in the Forum.
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