Carlos Pena Led Off Last Night

Carlos Pena led off last night. Carlos Pena led off for the first time in his career last night. Carlos Pena led off, despite averaging about two stolen bases per season and going against one old-school adage (speed at the top!) even as he fits another (second basemen bat second!).

Just how rare was the occurrence, though? And given the current state of the Rays, was it a good idea?

In the history of baseball, 273 first basemen have led off a game. In the past 10 years, a first baseman has led off 306 times. Corey Hart already managed the feat this year. Doesn’t seem so rare now, right?

But wait. Kevin Youkilis led off as a first baseman 90 of those times. Brad Wilkerson did it 76 times. Scott Hatteberg did it 38 times. Not only is this lineup arrangement getting rarer as we look deeper into it, we’re seeing a pattern emerge. Moneyball taught us this trick. If you don’t have a speedy guy who can take a walk on your roster, then throw a slow guy who can take a walk in the spot. More than half of all the instances of first basemen leading off fit this pattern. So does Carlos Pena.

The strange thing is that this Rays team has other, speedier, options for the leadoff spot. For one, there’s Ben Zobrist. He’s walking more than Pena right now, and he’s been above-average on Bill James‘ speed score his entire career. You can make an argument that he has some power and could be useful in the middle of the lineup — perhaps to break up some lefties — but with Desmond Jennings healing, Zobrist would be the natural choice for the top of the order.

But Maddon isn’t making this choice for the long-term needs of his team. He’s focused on the short-term needs of one player.


Maddon has done this before. He tried it with Evan Longoria. He once mentioned that he would have done this sort of thing with Albert Pujols. In fact, he’s been doing it his whole managerial career:

“I did it with Tim Salmon in the minor leagues. I did it with another player you’ve never heard of; his name was Kevin King, had great results at Double-A. These are big, strong guys that you normally wouldn’t see in the leadoff spot. I explained to Longo I wanted him to go out there today, work good at-bats, get on base, use all of his baseball skills and help us win a ballgame. And really try to give him a different outlook. Hopefully he’s going to have some fun with it and see where it takes him.”

So now, with Pena showing the second-worst strikeout rate of his career and the worst isolated power number of his career, Maddon is trying something new. By focusing on getting on base, Maddon might remove the power question from his first baseman’s mind. After all, even a struggling Carlos Pena is on track to be worth more than two wins — which would make up about half of Casey Kotchman‘s career win contribution. Perhaps this is to remind Pena that he still has an elite skill. Perhaps it’s even a one-game anti-shift move, with the side bonus of lauding Pena for something he’s doing right.

The one game sample seems to say the move was a good one. Well, maybe. He hit a home run, and it was the power that was lacking. Strangely, he didn’t take a walk, struck out once, and left two on base, but he did hit that home run. In any case, the team won and Pena probably felt fairly good about the game.

And in any case, this was a move rooted in psychology. Any study of players being moved to the leadoff spot during slumps would be fraught with sampling issues, and a saber-savvy manager like Maddon knows it. But Maddon also knows his players, and if he believes a move like this can clear a slugger’s mind, it’s worth more to him and his player than the one-tenth of one run that he might lose by putting his slugger at the top of the lineup.

As little as a single-game lineup change may mean, we can’t just poo-poo this away without some kudos for non-linear thinking. For all this talk of how often it’s happened, it is fairly rare to see a first baseman bat leadoff — after all, it didn’t happen once last year, and the last time it happened before that was… Dan Johnson in 2010.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

22 Responses to “Carlos Pena Led Off Last Night”

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  1. Steve says:

    <3 Joe Maddon.

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  2. j6takish says:

    This is much better than Jim Leyland’s “I don’t wanna move everybody around in the lineup just to accommodate one guy” mentality, which leads to rather hilarious lineup construction. Like Don Kelly and his sub 300 wOBA leading off, or batting cleanup and protecting Miguel Cabrera

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  3. Mario Mendoza of commenters says:

    I’m actually ok with Pena leading off, as long as Drew Sutton or Jeff Keppinger aren’t hitting cleanup.

    And why is Zobrist in the OF while SRod, Keppinger, & Elliott Johnson play everyday? Tampa HAS to have an OF better than one of those 3.

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    • Andy says:

      Once Desmond comes back then Zobrist will probably go back to 2B, and they could potentially put Allen in LF if he were to make it back before DJ but he is quite the adventure on defense. Right now due to injuries, they really don’t have an OF better than those guys you mention.

      The infirmary:

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    • Mario Mendoza of commenters says:

      I’d love to hear from those Rays fans who were bashing the Red Sox for not having enough OF depth in the “Red Sox Forced to Reshuffle Outfield” thread.

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  4. James Bones says:

    Doing something wacky = smart?

    He’s batting Drew Sutton cleanup today. And Pena is again leading off.

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    • Jason H says:

      I wonder if a different manager would also be credited with “knowing his players” for such a move. Would Jim Leyland or Dusty Baker be given the same courtesy?

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        Maybe not, but it would depend on the specifics. In this case, getting a high-OBP hitter atop the lineup doesn’t seem to be too crazy. Just a little crazy, given his slugging.

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      • Sleight of Hand Pro says:

        of course not, theyre not sabr guys

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      • Jason H says:


        Carlos Pena really is not a high OBP guy, unless 35% is high these days. I know he walks a lot, but not enough to overcome hitting .220.

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        The American League average OBP in the leadoff spot is .322 this year.

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      • Jason H says:

        “The American League average OBP in the leadoff spot is .322 this year.”

        Wow, that is absolutely dreadful! Do you have leadoff OBP by team handy? I’d be curious to see who the offending teams are. …that said, the Rays aren’t an average team. They are competing for a playoff spot.

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  5. chuckb says:

    I love Joe Maddon.

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  6. reillocity says:

    Sometimes I wonder if the Rays front office and coaching staff have meetings where they storyboard ideas that will get FanGraphs and similar sites to write about them.

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  7. Keith Karcher says:

    Danny Ozark did this with Mike Schmidt 34 years ago for much the same reason Maddon gave for Pena.

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  8. Gerald Perry led off occasionally, but that was actually for the opposite reason: he was a first baseman with some speed but very little power.

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  9. Jon L. says:

    I also really like the idea from the point of view of the opposing pitcher. Pitchers are used to opening the game against speedy, on-base guys, trying to pound the zone, avoid letting him reach. It seems like a real change to start off facing a serious power threat, a guy who’s unlikely to offer at anything off the plate (at least historically), but who can make you pay if you leave the pitch over the heart of the plate.

    If nothing else, getting the opposing pitcher’s adrenaline pumping sooner may pay off later in the game.

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