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Jeremy Peña Starts Strong But Comes Up Short

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremy Peña started very well. He was also one of the least productive hitters in baseball. How's that for a lede?

If I were to tell you that without any additional context, you'd probably think that Peña was struggling at the plate but making up for it in the field. However, the former Glove winner currently has -2 OAA and -5 DRS on the season. So much for that idea. On the contrary, Peña is on fire at the plate. Through the first six weeks of the 2024 campaign, he is hitting .313 with a 129 wRC+. And while his .351 BABIP is almost unsustainable, his .327 xBA ranks second among American League hitters. His .363 xwOBA rate is in the 80th percentile, which is a big step up from his .305 xwOBA (22nd percentile) in 2023. Most impressively, he dropped his strikeout rate to just 14.0%, ninth lowest in the AL. His strikeout rate has improved from 30 percent in his 2022 rookie campaign to 61 percent last season, and is now 92nd in his third year.

However, if you look up those percentages on Peña's Baseball Savant page, you might be surprised by the most important number of all: His home run rate is zero. The line on the value spectrum is a small shade of blue, sitting about a quarter of an inch closer to “poor” than “great.” That doesn't seem right. Indeed, of the 485 hitters to see a pitch this year, Peña is the only one with a wOBA and xwOBA above .350 and a negative batting average, according to Savant. It is not difficult to understand why he is an outsider. Generally, if a player hits anywhere close to Peña, he provides the least others a good asset to his team.

Metrics like wOBA and xwOBA are context neutral, while Baseball Savant calculates the number of runs by taking into account runners on base, number of outs, and number of balls and strikes for each split event. If you take that methodology a step further and consider the innings and the score, you get stats like Win Probability Added (WPA) – although Peña might ask us to, Please stop taking a step forward approach. According to the WPA, Peña cost the Astros more than he got back in 2024. Houston ranks second last in the AL with a -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-designated José Abreu and the hard-hitting Alex Bregman.

Don't let the fact that Peña has the third-worst WPA on his own team dictate how much he's contributed this year. His -1.03 WPA is 11th lowest in the majors and sixth lowest in the AL. In other words, his performance at the plate reduced his team's chances of winning by more than 10 players in the game. However, if you take a closer look at the bottom of the WPA leaderboard, you'll quickly notice that one thing is different:

Lowest WPA in 2024

No small PA

Yes, Peña is the only player on that list with a wRC+ better than league average. You'll have to stretch the table to 53 players before anyone else shows up with a wRC+ over 100. (To be fair, that player is Colton Cowser.) It's not that good hitters can't have a low WPA – yet. , 30 professional hitters with a wRC+ over 100 have a negative WPA – but it's rare to see a player hit this well with WPA this poor. When a player gets as many hits as Peña does, you'd think some of them would have to come in high-profile spots. Similarly, Peña is coming off a low streak 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 a game on the line.

From 1974 (back when the WPA leaderboards went) to 2024, there have been 42,194 individual hitting seasons (min. 1 plate appearance). Only 2,667 of those (6.3%) batters had a wRC+ over 100 and a WPA under zero. Only 204 times (0.48%) has a batter posted a wRC+ over 100 and a WPA below -1.00. And only once (0.002%) has a batter recorded a wRC+ over 128 and a WPA under 1.00 – Jeremy Peña in 2024.

I don't expect Peña to keep this distinction for the rest of the year. He has about 80% of the season left to play, and I would expect his wRC+ and WPA to go down in that direction. Still, what he has accomplished is incredibly historic. At the end of April, Peña was sporting a 138 wRC+ and a -1.27 WPA. Since 1974, there have been nearly 300 calendar months for Major League Baseball (ie April 1974, May 1974, June 1974… April 2024). During that time, there have been tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of individual player moons. However, no player has had a higher wRC+ and lower WPA in one calendar month than Peña in April 2024. Few have even come close. It may sound hard to believe, but after clicking each month for the past 50 years on a custom leaderboard, I can assure you it's true.

The last hitter to even post a wRC+ over 100 and a WPA under 1.00 in a month was… Peña in April 2023. Huh! Meanwhile, the last hitter with a wRC+ over 130 to rank in the bottom 10 in WPA was Daniel Vogelbach, who had a 132 wRC+ and -0.89 WPA in August 2022. The last player with a wRC+ over 120 and a The lowest WPA under -1.00 was Kevin Pillar in April 2017, who had a 124 wRC+ and -1.1 WPA over 110 plate appearances. Going back, other players this century who have come 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 this feat? Despite not having a triple with the bases loaded and the Astros down by one in the bottom of the ninth, he is coming off WPA's worst outing so far this season. (Note: In the next few sections, I'll be using Baseball Reference WPA. It's not exactly the same as ours, but it's similar and allows me to use the Stathead tool to compare each player's performances over several seasons.)

On April 17, Peña went 0-for-5. In four of his five at-bats, he plated runners and reached the final out of the inning. To top it off, he drew a double to end the game in the bottom of the 10th, tying the game at third. This is one bad game. According to Baseball Reference, no other hitter has had a -0.6 WPA in a single game this season, and only two have reached -0.5 WPA. Here are all 12 players who have had a game with a -0.4 WPA or worse in 2024:

WPA's Worst Batter Games of 2024

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

SOURCE: Stathead Baseball

Teams start all games with a 50% probability of winning. By the end of the day, the winners will have increased their odds of winning from 0.5 to 1.0, and the losers will have decreased theirs from 0.5 to 0.0. So, if one hitter finishes the game with a WPA below -0.5, that means that the rest of his teammates in the lineup are combined for a good WPA. That's more than a little embarrassing; perhaps we need another golden word for the sombrero type to describe such a performance.

If -0.5 WPA is bad, -0.6 WPA is worse. It's not easy to put together such a bad number in one game. Only five other players have ever had a WPA worse than -0.6 in a single tournament:

Active Batteries have a match of -0.6 WPA

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

SOURCE: Stathead Baseball

Instead of being distracted by the fact that Sean Murphy owns the top two spots on that list, we need to keep talking about Peña. Because, while his April 17 performance 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+ will only be higher. However, he posted a -0.66 WPA in April still would have ranked below any other AL batter with a wRC+ over 100.

According to his game logs, Peña has only had a positive WPA in 11 of 35 games this season. In addition, he didn't have many big moments against his worst shows. While he has been the 25th best 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 games came in May. His most productive outing in April ranked 443rd that month. He may record hits, but his timing won't be too bad.

Peña quickly developed a reputation as a clutch player during his rookie season. He hit .364 with a 198 wRC+ in high-average pitches, and his 1.20 clutch ERA ranked ninth among AL professional hitters. He was Houston's best hitter in the playoffs, posting a 187 wRC+ en route to winning the ALCS and World Series MVP honors. That said, his performance since then is a good reminder that clutch (or un-clutch) hitting is not a stable skill. That was bad news for the Astros last year in the ALCS, when their 2022 postseason champion went cold, hitting .160/.192/.160 with the lowest WPA on the roster. However, it might just be good news this time. The Astros won't turn things around unless their bats stop shorting in the big moments, and Peña has nowhere to go but up.

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