With the Astros offense struggling a bit down Michael Brantley and with Yuli Gurriel unable to do damage at the plate, Dusty Baker made a late-season move last year that played a mighty role in winning the Astros the 2022 World Series.
Baker moved his rookie shortstop up to second in the lineup with plenty of protection around him, forcing opposing pitchers to throw him fastballs. Jeremy Peña's rookie year had been very solid, and he had lessened the blow of losing Carlos Correa, but he was a league-average at best hitter playing Gold Glove caliber defense. Then a switch flipped.
In the 49 games in which Peña batted second last season, he hit .290 with an .837 OPS. That production far outweighed his splits anywhere else in the order.
Peña then went to another level in October, hitting clutch home run after clutch home run en route to taking home both the ALCS and World Series MVP.
With Brantley expected back in the fold and José Abreu joining the team in free agency, it became clear Peña wouldn't spend too much time batting second.
After José Altuve's broken thumb left him on IL to open the season, Jeremy Peña began the season as the leadoff hitter. In 11 games, Peña hit .229 with a .698 OPS before ceding the role to Chas McCormick and then Mauricio Dubón.
From there, he mostly slotted in the six-hole. In the 31 games in which Peña has batted sixth, he's hit .235 with an abysmal .609 OPS.
After the return of Altuve, Dusty Baker once again repositioned his chess pieces and appears to have once more found lightning in a bottle with his shortstop.
Peña went deep yesterday for the second time in as many days. He batted second in both games. In the seven games in which Peña has batted second this season, he's hitting .357 with a 1.364 OPS. Five of his eight home runs have come in those seven games.
Yes, it's a small sample size, but so much of baseball is mental, and something clicks for Peña when he is slotted second in the lineup. Across 56 regular season games for his career, Peña is hitting .298 with a .900 OPS in the two-hole. He's a below average hitter in every other lineup spot.
The second-year shortstop basically matches the numbers of José Altuve's 2022 season when he bats second, and looks like Abraham Toro when he doesn't.
No matter who comes back from injury and no matter what bats may be acquired at the deadline, there is something about this lineup when Peña bats second.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And the Astros lineup just clicks when Pena hits second. It's time to permanently leave him there.