The Rays signing of Carlos Pena this offseason for $7.25 million has been well worth the money so far. Through Thursday, Pena is hitting .333 with 3 HR, 9 runs, and 12 RBI; he also leads the team in WAR (0.8). While Pena will not hit with an 1.062 OPS the rest of the way, he has shown improvements thus far that will hopefully stay with him the rest of the season.
The slugger had signed a one year deal with the Cubs before the 2011 season for $10 million. In Chicago, he went on to hit 28 homers, bat .267 and drive in 80 runs. Although his average (.267) had increased from the .222 clip he hit for the Rays in 2010, it marked the second consecutive year where he hit under 30 home runs and had fewer than 85 RBI. As Pena turns 34 in May, one can only hope that he can fight off Father Time and go back to hitting 30+ bombs and driving in over 100 runs.
One reason to be excited about Pena’s return to the Rays is that he loves playing in Tampa. Although he was born in Santo Domingo and went to high school and college in Massachusetts, Carlos considers Tampa his home. This love of the area shows, as he has always hit well at the Trop. According to Fangraphs, Tropicana Field suppresses left-handed home run power by 11%. Over the past 5 years, ESPN’s Park Factors rank the Trop near the bottom of baseball in terms of home runs and hits. Carlos Pena clearly has never gotten this memo. In his career with the Rays, he has been a .261 hitter at home and a career .223 hitter on the road. With the Rays, he has hit a home run every 20.7 plate appearances at home, opposed to every 28.9 plate appearances on the road. Whether it is the blue background in his eye at the Trop, or the satisfaction of going deep in front of his “home” fans, Pena has loved hitting in St. Pete.
In order to see what Pena’s numbers could look like at the end of the year, we will consider what has fueled his hot start through the first 13 games of the season. No one expects Pena to hit even close to the .333 he has started the season off at; his high average has been a cause of an unsustainable .406 BABIP. One of the reasons that his BABIP is this high is that 24.2% of his balls in play have been line drives. He has averaged a 17.8% line drive rate over his career, but hasn’t been above 17% since 2008. In Pena’s worst season with the Rays, 2010, 44.9% of his balls in play were on the ground. This was a 21% increase from his career average (36.9%), and contributed to his .222 average. If Pena can hit the ball squarely at a 17% line drive rate and 45% fly ball rate (45.3% career average), he could hit up in the .260s to .270s. This would go a long way for the Rays, as Joe Maddon has been hitting Pena 2nd in the batting order.
Pena has also been very selective at the plate so far this season. Since 2007, he has swung at 44.1% of pitches seen, 22.9% outside of the strike zone and 69.5% in the strike zone. This season he is only swinging at 38.6% of pitches, 19.7% outside of the strike zone and 64.5% in the strike zone. Interestingly, his walk rate is down slightly on his career average, but a very small sample size is most likely the cause.
Although caution must be used when looking at such small sample sizes, all of Pena’s peripherals show that he could be in for a better than expected season. Pena will always scare opposing teams at the plate, but that will be even more so the case this season as he’s primed for a big year. I can reasonably see him scoring 80-90 runs out of the 2-spot, hitting 35 home runs, plating 100 batters, and hitting .265 with a .875 OPS. These numbers would make the Rays’ offense a threat from the very beginning of the order, and solidify the lovable Pena as a “home” town hero.