The cliche “the unstoppable force meets the immovable object” gets thrown around quite a bit this time of year. Typically two teams on a World Series crash course are being alluded too, but coming off of 106 regular season wins and sweeping their way through both the ALDS and ALCS, the Houston Astros check the boxes of both “unstoppable force” and “immovable object.”
On paper, seven straight playoff wins for a team that had already made five straight ALCS appearances with the pitching depth possessed by the Astros may not sound out of the realm of possibility, but when accounting for Jose Altuve starting his postseason 3-32 and Kyle Tucker’s struggles at the dish in the ALCS, back-to-back sweeps becomes a little harder to reconcile. How has this team continued to dominate? One mid-year lineup shakeup is all but responsible for the offense staying afloat.
Way back in March, Jose Altuve told Ken Rosenthal in a piece for The Athletic:
"“He’s going to be a superstar,” Altuve said. “I can tell by his attitude. He cares. He wants to be the best.”"
Altuve was referring to rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña. Faced with the impossible task of replacing franchise icon Carlos Correa, Peña kept his head down and went to work. Defense was never a question for Peña, but questions loomed about his ability with the bat. After a hot start, Jeremy stumbled down the stretch as scouting reports revealed he crushed fastballs but couldn’t handle the off-speed pitch.
When Michael Brantley went down after appearing in 64 games, Dusty Baker was left with a decision to make on who to bat second. As other lineup mainstays faltered in the two-hole, Baker turned to his rookie shortstop. Both Peña and the Astros haven’t looked back since.
When looking at Peña’s rookie season from a 30,000 foot view, it’s more than respectable. He batted .253 with 22 home runs and a slightly above-average .715 OPS. Jeremy was worth 15 defensive runs saved and worth 4.8 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference.
Zoom in on the damage done from his time batting second and a double take will be required. In 49 regular season games in the two-hole, Peña batted .290 with 13 bombs and 31 RBI. His slash line of .290/.315/.522 is even more impressive, giving him an OPS of .837 that would have tied for 16th amongst qualified hitters over the course of a full-season.
His playoff numbers are even more eye-popping. Peña carries a .303 batting average with a .990 OPS into the World Series. Sandwiched between Altuve and Alvarez, Peña is seeing a steady diet of fastballs. He’d previously faced a consistent helping of changeups and sliders that plagued him during his stint in the bottom third of the order. He has more than capitalized on the protection two of the best hitters in the game afford him.
But what about the team? How have they fared with a rookie batting second? In 56 combined regular season and playoff games with Peña batting second, the Astros’ record reads like a misprint: 49-7.
No, those are not a simulated Franchise season of MLB the Show on the easiest difficulty. Houston has been that dominant. Over the course of a full 162-game season, that .875 winning percentage would equate to 141 wins. Unfathomable.
Batting Jeremy second gives the Astros a first five of the order that is nearly impossible for opposing pitchers to navigate:
- Jose Altuve (.904 OPS/4th in MLB)
- Jeremy Peña (.837 OPS when batting second/t-16th in MLB)
- Yordan Alvarez (1.019 OPS/2nd in MLB)
- Alex Bregman (.820 OPS/25th in MLB
- Kyle Tucker (.808 OPS/33rd in the MLB)
Good luck navigating that treacherous terrain! If their first five generate a few runs (and anything else chipped in from their 6-9 hitters), the ‘Stros wipeout rotation and bullpen make a lead after nine innings all but inevitable.
With an ALCS MVP already on his mantle, Peña is well on his way to proving Altuve’s superstar prediction correct. To his credit, the rook has stayed humble all year, focusing on playing his game rather than the shortstop he replaced.
Sure, a case can be made that a Carlos Correa statue may one day stand outside of Minute Maid Park. He was the Golden Child, the hope during the darkness, the catalyst. His iconic moments in navy and orange are endless. But what may or may not stand on Crawford Street in the future is discussion for another day.
The Astros are still standing today, one of two teams left on their feet in their quest to be the last man standing.
“To the victor go the spoils.” The Astros have been the victor quite often these last six seasons. Replacing a franchise legend with a ready in the wings shortstop built for October? To some, that may be spoils. To the Astros, like appearing in the World Series, it’s par for the course.
“The unstoppable force” rolls on, propelled by the prodigious Peña, a second World Series title within reach. As long as Peña remains in the two-hole, he might need to clear some room on his mantle; the Commissioner’s Trophy is going to need a permanent home this time next week.