Carlos Pena: Is He For Real?

Those of you who have read Moneyball probably remember Carlos Pena as one of Billy Beane‘s favorite minor league players who was traded soon after the rest of the league started to value him more highly than Beane did. It turned out to be a solid trade for Beane, as he got several solid years out of Ted Lilly and Pena fell into baseball obscurity. Until this year, that is. Pena currently sits at .281 with 17 Home Runs in just over 200 at-bats. Is the one-time top prospect finally figuring it out, or is this year just a fluke? Let’s take a look!

Pena has shown power in the past: In 2004, he hit 27 HRs, and in 2005, he had a 24.7% HR/FB. This year, however, with the lowest fly ball rate of his career (excluding 2006, when he only had 33 ABs), Pena has already hit 17 HRs in less than half a season. His HR/FB is a fantastic 29.3% compared to his career level of 18.3%. And you know the most exciting part? He actually could be hitting more!

If we look at Pena’s HitTracker data, we see that 13 of his home runs have gone further than 400 feet with the furthest going 458. That leaves just four home runs that were hit under 400 feet, and one of which went 399. As the season goes on, it would be no surprise to see some of Pena’s shallower fly balls start going over the fence. Add in the fact that his 40% fly ball rate is the lowest of his career, and if Pena starts hitting more fly balls, he could further pad his power numbers.

So, we’ve now established that Pena’s power is for real, but what about the .281 batting average? His previous high in a season with more than 200 at-bats was .248 in 2003. His contact rate is just 70%, immediately leading us to believe that his BA might be a bit inflated. His 13% Walk rate is very good, though, and his 21% Line Drive rate is also pretty good. His .320 BABIP might be a tiny bit inflated. Even if it was .310, Pena would still be hitting .275.

If his home run rate picks up a little, a batting average around .280 still seems likely. It’s rare to see a guy with a reputation as a power hitter suddenly become a good contact hitter too, but it seems like Pena has done it. The improved selectivity and Line Drive rate appear to be driving that improvement.

For curiosity’s sake, let’s look at his Batted Ball Breakdown.

2006 League Average Line15.8911.1427.5241.244.20.748.501.095.236.003
2007 Pena Carlos 203 69.95 13.25 20.66 13.22 20.66 41.32 4.13 .680 .625 .000 .220 .400

Pena is hitting tons of line drives and fliners (which are something between a line drive and fly ball), further validating his average. There are some possible causes for concern, though. His line drive hit rate is a little below average, and he hasn’t had a single outfield fly go for a non-homer hit. He has only hit 25 non-homer outfield flies, though, so this shouldn’t be a major concern. His fliner hit rate looks good.

One idea mentioned in the Ballhype comments, which I think might be worth looking into at some point, was to look at ground ball hit rate—off-set for player speed—as a measure of how hard a player is hitting the ball. Pena’s ground ball hit rate is a bit below average, but so is his speed. For quick reference, we’ll look at PECOTA‘s speed scores for him. Between AAA and the majors in 2005 and 2006, Pena’s speed scores ranged from 3.1 to 4.9, where 5.0 is average. In this light, I don’t think his ground ball hit rate is all that bad.

I realize this is a bit crude, and hopefully me or someone else will one day do a study on these numbers, but for now it’s all we have to go on. Add in the fact that Pena only has 200 ABs and we are looking at fairly small sample sizes, and I wouldn’t downgrade him too much. I almost didn’t include this data, but I thought some of you might be interested. Take it for what it’s worth.

Pena has been mentioned as a candidate to be traded, but for now, hitting in the Devil Rays lineup provides him with plenty of RBI and run opportunities. Even if he is traded, his great power and decent contact numbers should stay in tact, and given his power/patience combo, I don’t see his RBIs and runs falling off too much. They could even go up if he’s traded to a team like the Yankees.

Overall, if you have Pena, hang onto him. I don’t see his production falling off, so ride him out to the end of the year. He might also be a little undervalued next year because some people will consider his season a fluke. Only being first base-eligible makes him a questionable keeper in certain set-ups, but Pena’s a guy I could see myself targeting in a draft or an auction next year.

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Your cranium must be protecting some very vaulable brains.