Can Carlos Pena thrive in the NL Central?
How colossally frustrating was Carlos Pena's 2010 season? Since 1901, there have been only four players who managed to hit 25 or more home runs while failing to reach .200 in batting average. If not for the fact that Mark Reynolds also accomplished the feat last season, perhaps we'd be even more amazed by Pena's descent into Rob Deer territory.
Still, somehow, optimism abounds, and Pena is currently being drafted, on average, in the 13th round of ESPN standard drafts; a huge climb from the depths of 316th place in the final 2010 ESPN Player Rater. It begs the question as to why so many people are buying Carlos Pena.
Certainly, health is one reason to see the glass as being half-full. Pena spent much of last season playing with plantar fasciitis, a foot injury that makes even walking a difficult task. In the offseason before the Chicago Cubs inked the first baseman to a one-year deal, Pena passed his physical, and appears to be fully recovered.
On top of that, Pena has left the American League East in favor of the National League Central. The general belief is that the drop off in the quality of pitching -- particularly tough left-handed pitching from the likes of CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero -- will do wonders for Pena's ailing batting average.
What's more, the expectation seems to be that the "friendly confines" of Wrigley Field should be a boon to Pena's already impressive power numbers. Unfortunately, I'm not so sure where this vision of a glorious 2011 comes from once you take a closer look at the recent history of the man already in his seventh different organization at the age of 32.
First let's take a look at that "tough" AL East. A quick look at the numbers shows that Pena didn't really struggle against the opposition in his division during his time in Tampa Bay (2007-2010):
Carlos Pena versus AL East opponents
Apart from obvious struggles against the Toronto Blue Jays -- and note that much of his failure to get on base was due to battles with current Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay, against whom Pena hit only .216 while "The Doc" was practicing in Canada -- Pena actually hit three points higher (.240) against the AL East than the .237 he hit against everybody else.
But still, the move to Wrigley Field from the Trop is going to aid in a surge in home runs, isn't it? Well, again, the facts don't bear this out. Those ivy-covered walls aren't exactly a panacea for left-handed hitters. You'd have to go all the way back to Leon Durham to find any significant and steady power from the left side of the plate in Chicago.
Apart from Jeromy Burnitz's 17 hometown long balls in 2005 and Jacque Jones' 12 round-trippers while wearing the home whites in 2006, you'd be hard-pressed to find southpaw power on the North Side of town since the days of The Bull. During Pena's tenure in Tampa Bay, the numbers clearly indicate that Tropicana Field was far more advantageous to left-handed sluggers:
Left-handed at-bats per home runs rates
Take Pena out of the equation, and you still end up with fairly similar home run totals from the left side in both parks, though still slightly favoring the field in Florida. So, it would seem that Pena isn't due for a huge increase in home runs simply due to having a new home. Rather, it would appear that it should simply be business as usual.
So, if it isn't the dimensions of the ballpark, or the quality of the competition that has been holding Pena back, then what is it? Well, truth be told, it has been Pena himself. With three seasons of declining results since his stellar 2007 season, when he hit 46 home runs with a .282 batting average, it's looking more and more like that year was an unrepeatable outlier.
Let's take a look at some stats on Pena's decision-making at the plate:
Carlos Pena, 2007-2010
*Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com
Pena's average has been on a steady trip past the Mendoza Line into embarrassment. It can't be mere coincidence that the drop in batting average has been accompanied by an incredible lack of understanding of the strike zone. Pena's O-Swing Percentage -- the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone -- has steadily risen over the past four seasons.
Not only that, but Pena's O-Contact Percentage -- the percentage of those chased pitches the batter makes contact with -- also rose markedly in 2010. When you swing at more bad pitches, and also put more of them into play, you've got a recipe for disaster; it's not an enormous leap of logic to infer that the contact Pena did make with these undisciplined swings resulted in the huge uptick in ground balls, and that goes a long way toward explaining the dip in home runs and the catastrophic batting average.
The low BB/K ratio is another telltale sign of this lack of plate patience, and clearly, with only four intentional passes offered up to Pena in 2010, managers around the league were simply not afraid to allow Pena to be his own worst enemy in clutch situations.
Could Carlos Pena turn it around? Sure, anything is possible. However, it seems that those expecting a sudden turnaround are grasping at straws. Some even theorize that Pena's being reunited with his first hitting coach, Rudy Jaramillo, might be the spark he needs to succeed -- an argument that might hold water if Pena hadn't topped .250 for the first time under the watch of Steve Henderson, six years after he left Jaramillo's tutelage.
To me, the facts say not to expect too much from Carlos Pena in 2011, and quite frankly, if you're a Cubs fan, that might be the best-case scenario. After all, a disappointing season from Pena all but guarantees that Chicago will once again be on the market for a new first baseman in 2012, and from what I hear, there's some guy from St. Louis who just might be looking for a new home by then.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.
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