HomeTrending MLB NewsJeremy Peña Is Starting Out Strong but Coming up Short

Jeremy Peña Is Starting Out Strong but Coming up Short

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Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremy Peña is off to an excellent start. He’s also been one of the least productive hitters in baseball. How’s that for a lede?

If I told you that without any additional context, perhaps you’d think Peña was struggling at the plate but making up for it in the field. Yet, the former Gold Glove winner currently has -2 OAA and -5 DRS on the season. So much for that theory. Much to the contrary, Peña is on fire at the plate. Over the first six weeks of the 2024 campaign, he is batting .313 with a 129 wRC+. And while his .351 BABIP is likely unsustainable, his .327 xBA ranks second among qualified American League batters. His .363 xwOBA ranks in the 80th percentile, a big step up from his .305 xwOBA (22nd percentile) in 2023. Most impressive, he has cut his strikeout rate down to just 14.0%, ninth lowest in the AL. His strikeout rate has improved from the 30th percentile in his 2022 rookie campaign to the 61st percentile last season, and now it sits in the 92nd percentile in year three.

However, if you glance up from those percentiles on Peña’s Baseball Savant page, you might be surprised by the most important number of them all: His batting run value is zero. The line on the value spectrum is the faintest shade of blue, sitting about a quarter of an inch closer to “poor” than “great.” That doesn’t seem right. Indeed, out of 485 batters to see a pitch this year, Peña is the only one with a wOBA and xwOBA above .350 and a negative batting run value, according to Savant. It’s not hard to understand why he’s an outlier. Typically, when a player is hitting anywhere close to as well as Peña, he provides at least some positive value to his club.

Metrics like wOBA and xwOBA are context neutral, while Baseball Savant calculates run value by considering the runners on base, the number of outs, and the ball and strike count for each discrete event. If you take that general methodology a step further and also consider the inning and the score, you get a statistic like Win Probability Added (WPA) – although Peña might ask that we please, please stop taking the methodology a step further. According to WPA, Peña has cost the Astros far more than he has given back in 2024. Houston ranks second to last in the AL with -3.82 offensive WPA this season. Peña (-1.03) is responsible for more than a quarter of that negative WPA. Only two players have contributed to the team’s misfortunes more than Peña: the now-optioned José Abreu and a deeply slumping Alex Bregman.

Don’t let the fact that Peña has only the third-worst WPA on his own team overshadow just how much negative value he has contributed this year. His -1.03 WPA is the 11th lowest in the majors and sixth lowest in the AL. In other words, his actions at the plate have decreased his team’s chances of winning by more than all but 10 other players in the game. Yet, if you take a closer look at the bottom of the WPA leaderboard, you’ll quickly see that one thing is nothing like the others:

Lowest WPA in 2024

No minimum PA

Yes, Peña is the only player on that list with a wRC+ that’s better than league average. You’d have to expand the table to 53 players before anyone else would appear with a wRC+ above 100. (For what it’s worth, that player is Colton Cowser.) It’s not that good hitters can’t have a low WPA – right now, 30 qualified batters with a wRC+ over 100 have a negative WPA – but it’s unusual to see a player hitting this well with a WPA this poor. When a player is getting as many hits as Peña, you’d think some of them would have to come in higher-leverage spots. Similarly, Peña is making outs at a low rate this year (his OBP is 15% better than league average). In theory, that should limit the number of times he can come up short with the game on the line.

From 1974 (as far back as our WPA leaderboards go) to 2024, there have been 42,194 individual batter seasons (min. 1 plate appearance). In only 2,667 of those (6.3%) has a batter had a wRC+ above 100 and a WPA below zero. Only 204 times (0.48%) has a batter posted a wRC+ above 100 and a WPA below -1.00. And only once (0.002%) has a batter recorded a wRC+ above 128 and a WPA below -1.00 — Jeremy Peña in 2024.

I don’t expect Peña to maintain this distinction all year. He has almost 80% of the season left to play, and I’d expect both his wRC+ and WPA to regress toward the mean. Still, what he has already accomplished is surprisingly historic. Through the end of April, Peña was sporting a 138 wRC+ and a -1.27 WPA. Dating back to 1974, there have been nearly 300 calendar months of Major League Baseball (i.e. April 1974, May 1974, June 1974… April 2024). In that time, there have been tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of individual player months. Yet, never has a player had a higher wRC+ and a lower WPA in a single calendar month than Peña in April 2024. Few have even come close. It may sound hard to believe, but having clicked through every month of each of the past 50 years on a custom leaderboard, I can assure you it’s true.

The last hitter to even post a wRC+ above 100 and a WPA below -1.00 in a month was… Peña in April 2023. Huh! Meanwhile, the last hitter with a wRC+ above 130 to rank among the bottom 10 in WPA was Daniel Vogelbach, who had a 132 wRC+ and a -0.89 WPA in August 2022. The last player with a wRC+ above 120 and a WPA below -1.00 was Kevin Pillar in April 2017, who had a had a 124 wRC+ and -1.1 WPA over 110 plate appearances. Going further back, other players this century who came close to Peña’s numbers include Dustin Pedroia in August 2009 (136 wRC+, -1.02 WPA) and Javy Lopez in June 2004 (132 wRC+, -1.16 WPA).

So, how did Jeremy Peña accomplish such a singular feat? Although he didn’t ground into a triple play with the bases loaded and the Astros down by one in the bottom of the ninth, he is responsible for the worst offensive game by WPA so far this season. (Note: For the next few paragraphs, I’m going to be using Baseball Reference WPA. It’s not exactly the same as ours, but it’s quite similar and allows me to use the Stathead tool to compare individual player games over several seasons.)

On April 17, Peña went 0-for-5. In four of his five at-bats, he came up with runners on base and made the final out of the inning. To cap it off, he grounded into a double play to end the ballgame in the bottom of the 10th, stranding the tying run on third. That’s one heck of a bad game. According to Baseball Reference, no other batter has had -0.6 WPA in a single game this season, and only two more have even gotten to -0.5 WPA. Here are all 12 players who have had a game with -0.4 WPA or worse in 2024:

Worst Batter Games by WPA in 2024

PlayerWPADateOpp.
Jeremy Peña-0.612April 17Braves
Bryan Reynolds-0.523April 26Giants
Nolan Gorman-0.504April 19Brewers
Ty France-0.490April 14Cubs
CJ Abrams-0.484April 12Athletics
Jeff McNeil-0.480May 1Cubs
Eloy Jiménez-0.453March 30Tigers
Masyn Winn-0.435May 4White Sox
Jo Adell-0.424May 1Phillies
Jeff McNeil-0.420April 28Cardinals
Lars Nootbaar-0.412May 4White Sox
Ezequiel Tovar-0.404May 2Marlins

SOURCE: Stathead Baseball

Teams start every game with a 50% win expectancy. By the end of the day, the winners will have increased their win expectancy from 0.5 to 1.0, while the losers have decreased theirs from 0.5 to 0.0. Therefore, if an individual batter finishes a game with a WPA below -0.5, that means the rest of his teammates in the lineup combined for a positive WPA. That’s more than a little embarrassing; perhaps we need another golden sombrero-type term to describe such a performance.

If -0.5 WPA is bad, -0.6 WPA is far worse. It’s not easy to compile so much negative value in one game. Only five other active players have ever had a WPA worse than -0.6 in a single contest:

Active Batters with a -0.6 WPA Game

PlayerWPADateOpp.
Sean Murphy-0.665July 15, 2023White Sox
Sean Murphy-0.654July 2, 2021Red Sox
DJ LeMahieu-0.646September 25, 2020Marlins
Starling Marte-0.645June 29, 2023Brewers
Andrew McCutchen-0.629August 19, 2016Marlins
Will Smith-0.613September 3, 2021Giants
Jeremy Peña-0.612April 17, 2024Braves

SOURCE: Stathead Baseball

Instead of getting sidetracked by the fact that Sean Murphy owns the top two spots on that list, we need to keep talking about Peña. Because, while his performance on April 17 goes a long way toward explaining his low WPA, it doesn’t tell the full story. If you remove that one game from the data set, his wRC+ would only get higher. Yet, his -0.66 WPA in April still would have ranked below any other AL batter with a wRC+ above 100.

According to his game logs, Peña has only had a positive WPA in 11 of 35 games this season. What’s more, he hasn’t had many big moments to counteract his worst showings. Although he has been a top-25 hitter in the AL by wRC+, he doesn’t even have one of the top 200 games in the AL by WPA (using Baseball Reference WPA again). His two most productive games currently rank 225th and 233rd, and both of those outings came in May. His most productive outing in April ranked 443rd that month. He may be racking up hits, but his timing couldn’t be worse.

Peña quickly developed a reputation as a clutch performer during his rookie season. He hit .364 with a 198 wRC+ in high-leverage spots, and his 1.20 clutch score ranked ninth among qualified AL hitters. He was Houston’s best hitter in the playoffs, posting a 187 wRC+ en route to earning ALCS and World Series MVP honors. That said, his performance ever since is a good reminder that clutch (or un-clutch) hitting isn’t a sustainable skill. That was bad news for the Astros last year in the ALCS, when their 2022 postseason hero went ice cold, hitting .160/.192/.160 with the lowest WPA in the lineup. However, it might just be good news this time around. The Astros aren’t going to turn things around unless their bats stop coming up short in big moments, and Peña has nowhere to go but up.

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