Carlos Pena’s Walk Year

Once a cherished prospect, ranked among the top 10 farm talents in the game by Baseball America before the 2002 season, Carlos Pena took a circuitous route to major league success. The 10th overall pick in the 1998 draft drifted through the Texas, Oakland and Detroit organizations, putting up full-season wOBAs in the .330s and .340’s — hardly standout marks for a first baseman.

Released by the Tigers in March of 2006, Pena toiled at the Triple-A level for the Yankees (who cut him loose in August) and the Red Sox. He inked a one-year, $800,000 minor league deal with Tampa Bay for 2007 and proceeded to post a .430 wOBA that season. The Rays rewarded Pena with a three-year, $24.125 million deal, buying out two years of arbitration and his first free agent year . Pena put up a .374 wOBA in both 2008 and 2009, but the free-agent-to-be is hardly having an ideal walk year in 2010.

In 189 plate appearances, the 32-year-old is batting .189/.307/.377, with a .304 wOBA. While his walk rate is still solid at 13.8 percent, it’s down from his 15-16 percent marks from 2007-2009. Pena had Isolated Power figures of .345 in ’07, .247 in ’08 and .310 in ’09, but his ISO sits at a comparatively mild .189 this year. To this point, he has been sub-replacement-level, with -0.1 WAR. What gives?

Over the ’07 to ’09 seasons, Pena showed quality plate discipline. He swung at a lower-than-average rate of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone — 19.8 percent in ’07, 20.8 in ’08 and 23.6 in ’09, while the MLB average was around 25 percent those years. Pena let it rip on in-zone pitches, with Z-Swing marks well above the big league norm, but he rarely got himself out on junk pitches off the plate.

This year, however, Pena has hacked at 31.5 percent of out-of-zone offerings (27.7 percent MLB average in 2010). It could be a coincidence, but perhaps pitchers have taken note of his uncharacteristic eagerness to chase. Opponents have put just 41.8 percent of pitches in the strike zone against Pena, compared to the 49-51 percent range from ’07 to ’09 and the 47.6 percent MLB average this season.

He’s making more (presumably weak) contact with those pitches out of the zone — 55.7 percent, compared to 42.5 percent in ’07, 48.7 percent in ’08 and 39.6 percent in ’09. The result of Pena’s expanded zone and higher out-of-zone contact rate is more 0-and-1 counts or balls put in play on the first pitch: his first pitch strike percentage is 64.6, way above his marks of 51.8 percent in ’07, 58.2 in ’08 and 55.1 in ’09 (58 percent MLB average).

Normally a prodigious pull hitter, Pena hasn’t lashed the ball to the right side with the same gusto this year:

He’s hitting fewer line drives, grounding out far more than usual and popping the ball up at a rate well above the big league average. The result is a .373 wOBA on pulled pitches, a far cry from his previous work and 26 points below the average for lefty batters.

Odds are, Carlos Pena won’t continue to hold a .214 BABIP and a wOBA that might get him confused with Ramiro Pena — Carlos’ rest-of-season ZiPS projection is .231/.354/.494, with a .371 wOBA. But clearly, he’s not helping his free agent stock right now. If Pena wants to get paid, he needs to show more restraint and start roping the ball to the pull field once again.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


4 Responses to “Carlos Pena’s Walk Year”

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  1. The Hit Dog says:

    Has anyone ever done a study on the BABIPs of hitters against whom the shift is usually used?

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  2. vivaelpujols says:

    League-wide O-Swing is up nearly 3% from last year. It could be that hitters are become less patient, but I would bet that BIS/FanGraphs has changed the way they have calculated the stat (which is understandable). Still, all analysis using O-Swing should make note of this fact.

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  3. Circlechange11 says:

    My guess is pitchers are giving him fewer “pullable” pitches and if he’s trying to pull outside pitches, then he’ll likely just keep getting more of the same.

    Asking him to be more patient in a contract year is easier said than done.

    His homers seem to be of the mile high variety. Is it possible that more of those balls are ending up as deep flies?

    I would imagine far too often Pena is playing into the pitcher’s/defense’s hands by hitting the pitch they want where they want him to hit it.

    Didn’t Ruan Howard go through a major slump last year where he was trying to pull everything?… Especially pitches that are hard to pull with authority.

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  4. pft says:

    He had a decent April when he put up an 859 OPS. His struggles began in May during, which he has a 515 OPS. Kind of like David Ortiz backward. I wouldn’t call it anything more than a slump for now. He had a bad start to 2008 IIRC and finished the last 3 months of the season with a 960 OPS.

    His hitting 6th or 7th is not good for him though. Somebody has to hit there but he won’t get anything to hit. That lower 1/3 of the order is worse than some NL lineups.

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