2012 began like a dream for Carlos Pena and the Rays. They signed as a free agent when nobody thought they could afford him. His Opening Day grand slam off of CC Sabathia exhilarated everyone Rays fan around and led to an outstanding April. But since then, Pena has had a rough go and looked to have completely fallen apart. From May through August, Pena managed just a .167/.297/.306 line, slamming 12 home runs but striking out 132 times compared to just 58 walks. His 172 strikeouts on the season is already a Rays record. But lately, Pena has finally started to put a little something together.
On Thursday, Pena came through with a key 9th inning RBI single off of Andrew Bailey to pull the Rays within 4-2 and keep their comeback going as they wound up scoring 6 in the 9th to beat the Red Sox 7-4. And the hit wasn’t an aberration for Pena, at least not of late. Since September 1st, Pena has played in all 18 of the Rays’ games, starting just 10, and he has hit well, posting a .281/.500/.500 line with 1 double, 2 homers, 5 RBI, and most impressively 13 walks against 13 strikeouts in 46 plate appearances. It’s a small sample size, but that’s real progress. How has he done it? He has played like a different player than we have seen from him his entire career. He has cut down on his swing, limiting his outstanding power but allowing him to put the ball in play more. He has been willing to go the other way, something we have seen him so rarely do in the past, leading to nearly every team in baseball putting 3 infielders on the right side of the infield against him. Here’s his spray chart from May to August followed by his spray chart in September courtesy of Texas Leaguers.
Once again, the sample size is very small, but Pena has been willing to adjust his approach and use the entire field, and even though that has lessened the impact of his power, it has made him much more valuable for the Rays of late.
Is this stretch a sign of a breakthrough for Pena? Is this just his last hurrah? The Rays aren’t worrying about that right now. They just hope that Pena can give them quality at-bats the rest of the season to help them with their playoff drive. Pena has stopped being an albatross at the plate. He has helped the Rays win games and hopefully he can continue to do that the rest of the season.