What’s Wrong with Carlos Pena?

This week, our staff is going to run a series of posts entitled “What’s Wrong With…”, where we explore the reasons why so many notable players are off to horrific starts in 2011. We understand that one month of data constitutes a small sample size, and that patience will be rewarded in several of these instances, but there are so many high profile players who are struggling that we felt it was worthwhile to explore the reasons why. Today, we start things off with the Cubs new first baseman, who isn’t exactly introducing himself to Chicago the way he would have liked.

The left-handed power bat of Carlos Pena and the friendly confines of Wrigley Field seemed like a perfect marriage on paper. From 2007 to 2010, Pena averaged 36 home runs per season. His 144 bombs over that time frame ranked second in the American League to Alex Rodriguez (149). Moving to Wrigley Field — a stadium that has been a home run haven for left-handed batters — seemed like a great place for Pena to rebound after hitting .196/.325/.407 in 2010.

Although Pena’s slash line was rather ugly, he still displayed some good power. He hit 28 home runs as part of his 46 extra-base hits. His .211 ISO was the lowest of any season he spent with Tampa Bay, but still above the league average of .145.

You could argue the case for some bad mojo in his batting average. His .222 BABIP was the second lowest in the majors behind Aaron Hill (.196). According to Eno Sarris’ calculations, Pena’s xBABIP was .301. I’m sure, however, there was some bad luck involved along the way, but the slow-footed Pena did not help himself with a 44.5% GB rate either. In addition to the groundball rate, opposing managers continue to over-shift on Pena which takes away some base hits.

The first month of the 2011 season did not go as planned for Pena or the Cubs. In his first taste of National League action, the first baseman hit .159/.289/.175 in 77 April plate appearances. Some might say the sub .200 batting average is not much of a surprise considering last season’s effort, but the nearly identical slugging percentage is eye-popping.

Pena falls into the category of a three-outcome hitter. So far, two of the outcomes are there. Pena’s 15.6% walk rate is consistent with what we’ve seen from him over the past few seasons. His 36.5% strikeout rate is a bit elevated, but striking out one-third of the time is not uncommon for him; zero home runs, however, and one extra-base hit is not only different, but rather scary. In fact, if you go back to the final two months of 2010, Pena has just five home runs in his last 237 plate appearances.

In terms of swing-related statistics, Pena is offering at a normal number of pitches. He has actually concentrated on more pitches in the zone and is laying off a few more pitches located outside of it. On the other hand, his overall contact rate is down and his swinging strike percentage has increased. While Pena has had empty swings against changeups and curveballs in the past, he is now missing fastballs more often. Not really want you want to see from an aging slugger.

To limit the damage Pena is doing at the plate – in a negative way – the Cubs are toying with the idea of platooning him with Jeff Baker. The right-handed Baker is a second baseman by trade with 28 career starts at first base. In 463 plate appearances Baker owns a .393 wOBA against left-handed pitches. The Rays rarely platooned Pena, but in two of the past three seasons he had wOBA of around .300 against southpaws. The pairing makes sense, but the Cubs did not guarantee Pena $10 million with the intentions of platooning him with a utility player. Baker left Saturday’s game with an injury which could throw a temporary wrench in the Cubbies plans.

Looking at Pena’s career numbers and suggesting he will regress with more time would be easy. At the same time, considering his age, his skill-set, and the quick decline of other three outcome hitters, regression to the mean might not be so simple. Even if Pena does not fully regress, one would think there are a few home runs left in his bat, and perhaps a few wind-aided flyballs will clear the Wrigley Field ivy. 

The fact that he might be platooned and is struggling in an offensive environment does not speak well for Pena’s chances to cash in on the open market next season- the hope he had when he signed with Chicago. As for the Cubs, if Pena never regains his power stroke, their investment is limited. It does not look like they will recoup the 2.5 wins they paid for, but it still was a risk worth taking,

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Tommy Rancel also writes for Bloomberg Sports and ESPNFlorida.com. Follow on twitter @TRancel

30 Responses to “What’s Wrong with Carlos Pena?”

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  1. Htpp says:

    He missed a grand slam by about a foot against the Pirates, and he missed a go-ahead 9th-inning HR yesterday by about 6 inches. Very frustrating.

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    • prospectslol says:

      also had another one that would have been a walk off HR to LF that the wind killed at the wall.. he’s hitting flashed power, just been unlucky. He’ll be fine come the summer.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I’m guessing he’s had “near misses” in TB too.

      Although it is possible that his bad luck is magnified when he came to the Cubs. That seems to happen to players.

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      • Jon says:

        On your first point, yes, you would expect a player who hit lots of balls over the fence to also hit some near-misses. However, for a player whose true ability was no homers, you would expect few to no near-homers as well. It suggests that Pena is likely to hit a few over the next month or two, even if his ability has declined since last season.

        On your second point, yes, I believe it was Bill James (?) who published an article demonstrating a negative association between serendipity and the Cubs uniform.

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    • Peter O. says:

      Frustrating is not the word I would use. Extremely concerned is more like it. The fact that he admits to “having got all of it” on several occasions, and yet the ball still hasn’t left the yard is scaring the bejeezus out of me as a Cubs fan. Makes me worry the bat speed just isn’t there anymore.

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  2. Yirmiyahu says:

    Excluding his 2007-2009, Pena has produced just 3.8 WAR in 2587 PA’s.

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  3. Dandy Salderson says:

    Uhh can you say Sample Size? Guy hurt his hand the first week and has has 55 ABs since. No homers over a 55 AB period does not concern me.

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    • Santos says:

      Well I suppose I’ll give it the old college try… “Sample Size”. There. No I guess that was more typed than said. You’ll just have to trust me. I said “Sample Size” out loud here at work.

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      • B N says:

        That’s a pretty good job. I messed up and said “Super Size.” Now I have twice as many fries as I need.

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  4. Peter Gentleman says:

    His swing looks ridiculously slow compared to even just last year. While he’s always been a slow starter, he looks just about done right now.

    Of course, as David Ortiz has shown the past few seasons, sometimes bat speed just nagically comes back over the course of the season as players tinker with their swing mechanics, so I wouldn’t write off Pena just yet.

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  5. Danny says:

    “It does not look like they will recoup the 2.5 wins they paid for, but it still was a risk worth taking.”

    Only the Cubs could spend $10 million on a starting first baseman, have him post a -0.5 WAR over the first month and still be happy taking that risk.

    I know hindsight is 20/20 but Pena was already on a pretty clear downward trend, and at this rate he wouldn’t be hitting home runs even if the Cubs played their home games at a little league diamond.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Only the Cubs could spend $10 million on a starting first baseman, have him post a -0.5 WAR over the first month and still be happy taking that risk.


      I think everyone knew Pena was on a downward turn. The Cubs signed him to fill in at 1st for ONE year, which was a decent risk.

      They’re are two other NLC 1B’s that will be on the market this year, and IMO, the Cubs will be in the mix for one of them.

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    • 81 says:

      Danny’s making an awful lot of assumptions. Besides ignoring sample size issues and resorting to hyperbole, you’re also assuming the Cubs are “happy” taking a risk when they’ve already considered a platoon (the article mentioned this!). I’m willing to assume you either have a general bias towards the Cubs or you’re a Cubs fan (we’re a notoriously self-loathing lot). I haven’t even mentioned yet that you are wrong, and that for a team with mammoth financial resources in an awful division with little hope of contending from the outset, a one year “prove it” investment for someone that hit nearly 30 home runs is still sound.

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      • 81 says:

        Let’s also consider the weather. Average high temperatures for Chicago in April is 58 degrees, opposed to an average April high in Tampa Bay of 81. While I live in Milwaukee now and don’t know specifically what the weather was like in Chicago, I know it reached a record low with the amount of sunlight, which has a profound effect on temperatures.
        Just eye-balling his lines from games in which the Cubs played in warmer weather environments/in doors:
        Cold: 31ABs, 4 hits
        Warm: 35ABs, 7 hits
        (I realize ABs and hits are pretty flawed for analytical purposes)
        On the surface it looks like it’s just cold right now, and his fingers were broken late last season.

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      • Danny says:

        Actually I have no bias toward or against the Cubs. I’m a Jays fan and have nothing against Chicago. Talk about a small sample size – did you really just give cold/warm weather splits on May 2nd?

        Instead of going with a younger group and looking a couple years into the future, the Cubs made a pretty large bet on a very risky player. That $10 million would sure come in useful when you are looking to re-sign someone like Castro to a long term contract.

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      • 81 says:

        Oh I realize it’s completely shallow analysis of a tragically small sample size but you did the same so I figured it was cool.

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      • Danny says:

        Is it still a “tragically small sample size” when you include the 2010 season as well?

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  6. NLeininger says:

    Maybe he’s just not a good player.

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  7. CubsFan says:

    All statistical analysis aside, he just looks bad. He’s failing the infamous “eyeball test” in a big way. He has already saved Starlin Castro and Aramis Ramirez quite a few throwing errors with his defense at first base but his offensive production has been terrible. The only positive thing that I have observed about Pena at the plate is that he consistently works deep counts. By seeing a lot of pitches he is at least making the pitcher work to get him out.

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  8. Jilly says:

    While he’s certainly played poorly like others have said he’s run into his share of bad luck as while Wrigley on aggregate is a hitters park when the weather is like it has been so far this season it plays as much more of a pitcher’s park. When the weather heats up he will too, now whether or not he gets hot enough to make him worth the investment is the question.

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    • Al Dimond says:

      Wrigley sure is a highly variable park. My understanding (which may be wrong) is that winds tend to blow in from or out to left, and that right field gets a lot of cross winds. That should mean a lefty pull-hitter won’t care about the wind as much, but I don’t really know how that’s played out this year, as I haven’t been in Chicago. It certainly is often a tough place to hit early in the year when the weather is cold.

      Of course, the wind doesn’t matter when you’re pounding the ball into the ground. Pena isn’t going to have much success without hitting some fly balls.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I’m going to politely suggest that the wind is not the deciding factor in regards to whether Pena is good or not.

        He’s limited in skills to begin with. He generally walks …. so really it’s a matter of whether he’s hitting home runs or not.

        He’s dependent on hitting a lot of fly balls, with a good number of them going out. His GB% needs to be closer to 30 than to 45.

        This could be just small sample, but it could also be due to a change in his swing mechanics, bat speed, timing, how pitcher’s are approaching/pitching him, etc.

        When it comes to articles like this (and the expected frequency of the articles) this is where we get limited. If someone isn’t drastically obvious from metrics, then we don’t have an answer (or chalk it up to luck).

        It’s entirely possible that his mechanics and/or timing are all screwed up and he’s “topping” pitches that he usually get under and lofts.

        Wrigley usually gets livelier as the temperature goes up, so it could be that as well.

        At this point in the year, as with most situations, “it could be anything”.

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  9. Sean says:

    How’s this for sample size?

    Past calendar year (568 PAs)



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  10. Jay says:

    I am also concerned about Pena. The Wrigley Field reasons are fine but what about playing on the road. He doesn’t look any better there. He has had some good swings to the warning track and I do think it is his mechanics. He is hitting too many ground balls. And when he does elevate he is hitting it too high.
    Too soon to say if it is correctable or not. Except for Soriano none of the Cubs are hitting it out. Ramirez, Colvin, and Berg are not hitting the long ball. At least
    Ramirez has a good BA.

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  11. fang2415 says:

    So maybe I’m interpreting these numbers wrong, but a his batted ball stats (http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=934&position=1B#battedball) sure seem consistent with an explanation of bad luck to me. Aside from the .234 BABIP, his fly ball rate is actually up from last year, his ground ball rate is down, and his line drive rate is better than it’s been since his rookie year. In fact, all those numbers are almost identical to his .430 wOBA 2007 line, except that he’s actually hitting more line drives now, striking out a little more (5%), and, of course, currently boasts a HR/FB of 0.0%.

    Am I missing something about these numbers? Are they unreliable for some obvious reason? Watching Pena, it anecdotally seems like he’s been crushing balls (especially recently) that fall just short of yard, so to me those batted ball numbers seem to back that up…

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