Commentary

Tampa not the best fit for Carlos Pena

Updated: January 20, 2012, 4:58 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Cross another designated hitter candidate off the board, and, if you've been following the discussion about that position related to news surrounding the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers in the past week, surely you're disappointed to learn where Carlos Pena ended up.

On Friday, Pena returned to the team with which he enjoyed his best fantasy season, that coming in 2007, as he signed a one-year, $7.25 million contract with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Frankly, fantasy owners would've been happier had Pena landed in a place such as New York, or even remained in Chicago, considering the type of hitter he has become. In Tampa Bay, and Tropicana Field, he'll call home a ballpark that ranked among the 10 toughest venues in which to hit a home run in three of the past four seasons. Meanwhile, Chicago's Wrigley Field and New York's Yankee Stadium are two ballparks that benefit left-handed power hitters.

Consider this: Per ESPN Stats & Information's Mark Simon, Pena pulled 52 percent of his balls put into play from 2009 to 2011 combined, the highest percentage for a pure left-handed hitter. Delving further, Pena pulled 71.1 percent of his ground balls and 38.1 percent of his fly balls, which helps explain why, the more time that passes, defenses are more apt to pull an extreme shift against him.

Couple that with a 27.4 percent strikeout rate in that three-year span, third highest among qualified hitters, as well as his eroding performance against left-handed pitching (.814, .675, .594 OPS against that side in the past three seasons), and it's no wonder Pena has batted a mere .216, the worst batting average of any hitter. You can make the BABIP case if you wish -- his was .246, also worst in the majors -- but there are explanations for why his BABIP was so low.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Pena
AP Photo/Dave TulisCarlos Pena is definitely a fly-ball hitter, which won't help him at Tropicana Field.

One is that Pena's 48.0 percent fly-ball rate, 16th in the majors from 2009 to 2011, guarantees him a lower BABIP if only because fly balls are the batted-ball type most likely to result in an out. The major league average BABIP on fly balls the past three seasons was .165; Pena's was .144. The other is that, thanks to his extreme-pull tendencies, he's less likely to succeed on ground balls than an average hitter, evidenced by his .120 BABIP on pulled grounders, well beneath the .225 big league average for left-handed hitters.

A straight platoon might be the most likely route to a .240-plus batting average, so count on another season from Pena as one of the game's lowest-average hitters. One problem with a platoon: The seven home runs he hit against lefties in 2011, and 27 2009-11, show that he would suffer about as much in terms of counting numbers as he would gain in terms of batting average.

The upshot is that Pena probably won't be any more productive in fantasy this year than last, and he finished 25th among first basemen on the Player Rater in 2011. I had him ranked 22th at the position before the move; he remains there after it.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.