Astros must be cautious despite Jeremy Pena’s fast start

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Can the kid be stopped? Jeremy Pena is off to a red-hot start to his MLB career, but there are some areas the young Astros shortstop needs to address.

Jeremy Pena had impossibly big shoes to fill taking over the starting shortstop job for the Houston Astros this season.

Carlos Correa manned the position for seven years, becoming a two-time All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner. With Correa, the Astros made three trips to the World Series and won the franchise’s first championship in 2017. He hit more than 20 home runs in a season five times, a figure exceeded by only seven shortstops in MLB history.

But then he was gone, signing as a free agent with the Minnesota Twins this offseason. The Astros front office didn’t add any of the shortstops that were on the market. Instead, they handed the job to their top prospect, a 24-year-old who had only played 30 games above Single-A.

Astros: Jeremy Pena starts off hot

Pena hasn’t disappointed, rewarding manager Dusty Baker’s faith in him with a sensational start to his MLB career. After striking out twice and going 0-4 against Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angeles Angels on Opening Day, he collected his first three hits in his second game and provided a moment his family will never forget. Leading off the top of the seventh inning, while Heidi Watney was interviewing his parents Geronimo (who spent seven years in the big leagues with the Cardinals and Indians) and Cecilia on the Apple TV broadcast, Pena hit the first pitch from the Angels’ Mike Mayers into the seats in left field for his first home run.

He hasn’t looked back from there. Pena is batting .345 with a .996 OPS through his first eight games, perhaps not making the fans in Houston forget all about Correa but lessening the blow from his departure. He’s one of only 10 players in the last 50 years to have three hits in a game three times within his first eight career games. Pena trails only Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in barrel rate so far this season and ranks in the top-10 in the league in average exit velocity.

In his last game, on Saturday in Seattle, Pena went 3-3 including his first career triple. He came a home run away from the cycle, and then only by the slimmest of margins. Facing Mariners starter Chris Flexen in the second inning and with Niko Goodrum standing on third base, Pena hit a hanging curveball deep to center field. On a warmer night, the ball would’ve carried for a two-run home run. Instead, it was caught at the base of the wall, 391 feet away, for a sacrifice fly.

“Just play, kid,” Dusty Baker told the Houston Chronicle’s Brian T. Smith after Pena’s first homer. “I’ll put you out there and you just play to the best of your ability that God gave you. It’s great when you see a kid doing outstanding.”

And Pena has been outstanding, even in the field. He leads all shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved this season and leads the Majors in outs above average. In 40 chances at shortstop, he’s made only one error.

There is one area opposing pitchers can learn to exploit Jeremy Pena

If opposing teams want to pick on any weakness, it’s Pena’s aggressiveness at the plate. He’s swung at the first pitch 11 times in 32 plate appearances this season, second on the Astros and five points above the league average. He’s gone 22 consecutive plate appearances without drawing a walk over his last six games. In his 0-4 debut, Ohtani threw him five sliders; Pena swung and missed at all of them.

As opposing pitchers see more on Pena, they’re likely to take note of his free-swinging habits and propensity for expanding the zone. It hasn’t caught up to him yet, but eight games is a small sample size in the life of an MLB player.

The Astros offense, even with Pena’s production, has been in freefall so far this season. The team is hitting a collective .208. Kyle Tucker, Jose Altuve, and Yuli Gurriel are all hitting below .200. Of their 31 runs, eight of them came in one inning against the Angels on April 8, the same inning Pena hit his first home run. It’s the only time the defending AL East champs have scored more than four runs in a game this season.

In a lineup full of perennial All-Stars with World Series rings, it’s been their young shortstop, trying to replace a franchise icon, who’s been the biggest bright spot. And he’ll finally get to play in front of his own fans as the 5-4 Astros get set for their home opener on Monday.

Suddenly, the Astros and fans across Texas aren’t missing Correa quite so much anymore.

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