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.