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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,