Every Rays fan remembers those days when Carlos Pena was a superstar. He blasted 46 home runs in 2007 before hitting 31 home on the Rays’ improbable 2008 run, and then he tied for the AL lead in homers in 2009 with 39 despite missing the last couple weeks of the season with a wrist injury. But the an he hit .196 with just 28 longballs in 2010, and all of a sudden he was gone. However, after posting a .225/.357/.462 line for the Cubs in 2011 with 28 home runs and 27 doubles, Carlos Pena is back in St. Petersburg. But considering he turns 34 in May, what does he have left in the tank?
A common refrain is that Pena was much better in the second half of 2011 for the Cubs than he was in the first half. In the first half, Pena posted a .225/.339/.461 line in 87 games. In the second half, Pena’s line was .225/.380/.464 in 66 games. Pena went from 8 doubles and 19 homers in the first half to 19 doubles and 9 homers in the second. There was definitely some tangible improvement, but it was more in discipline than anything else. In the first half, Pena struck out 88 times (25.9% of his plate appearances) while walking 49 times (14.4%). In the second half, Pena struck out 73 times (27.4% of his plate appearances), but walked 52 times (19.5%). What does all this mean for Pena in 2012? Pena’s overall strikeout rate in 2011, 26.6% of his plate appearances, was his lowest since his ridiculous 2007 season. His walk rate, 16.7% of his PA’s was his highest since ’07. That’s a very good development for Pena moving forward.
Historically, Pena has always been better in the second half than in the first, posting a .246/.365/.516 line in the second half compared to .231/.339/.459 in the first. But there were some sharp differences between Pena’s splits by half in 2011 compared to the rest of his career. For his career, Pena’s strikeout and walk rates have only improved slightly from half to half, from 26.3% and 13.1% in the first half to 26.4% and 14.8% in the second half. In the second half, Pena has tended to have second halves than firsts because he has hit more home runs, with 5.6% of his second half PA’s ended with a home run compared to 5.0% in the first. In 2011, Pena had a sharp increase in BAbip (batting average on balls in play) from the first half to the second, .249 to .292. His average didn’t go up because he struck out more and hit home runs at a lesser rate. For his career, Pena’s BAbip has gone up from .270 to .287 from the first half to the second, not nearly as precipitous. What’s really going on here?
In the second half, Pena hit for less power yet struck out more. Why? It’s not that he cut down on his swing, but he actually swung harder and simply didn’t get the results. Looking at Pena’s BAbip by batted ball type, his .130 BAbip on flyballs is nothing suspicious, coming in a tick below the league average of .137. But looking at his overall batting average on flyballs, it was .294 compared to the .218 league average. Most of that came from the 26 of his home runs that came on flyballs. But the thing was that a smaller margin of Pena’s plate appearances ended with a home run in 2011 than any season where he’s been a regular going back to 2003. Pena’s 15.3% HR/OFB (percentage of home runs among flyballs hit to the outfield) was his lowest as a regular since 2004. The difference in batting average is explained by the fact that Pena’s career BAbip on flyballs is just .107. But we see that it’s not that Pena was hitting his flyballs any less hard, but that a few more of them were ended up as doubles than had in the past. Pena’s 27 doubles in 2011 were his most since 2007. 8.8% of his flyballs ended up as doubles in 2011 compared to 5.7% for his career.
Overall, what we’ve said so far is pretty negative. Maybe Pena has gained some plate discipline, but his home run power has deteriorated and hits would have been homers in the past have turned into doubles. But Pena still hit 28 home runs in 2011, just as many as he hit in 2010, in just 22 more plate appearances, and he hit 9 additional doubles. On the season, Pena hit 58 extra-base hits, the third most of any season in his career behind 2007 and 2009. What was interesting, though was his home runs to doubles ratio (a stat I’ve never heard anyone quote before) which was 28 to 27 or 1.04, well below his 1.30 career mark and 1.50 mark from 2007 through 2010. For some perspective, the MLB average in 2011 was just .54 in 2011, indicating how much of a power hitter Pena has been. Even for hitters who hit 25 or more home runs in 2011, their home runs to doubles ratio was still .96. Even more bizarre was that in the first half, Pena’s HR/2B was a ridiculous 2.38 while in the second half it was just .47, below the league average. Overall, he ended up right around where a 28 home run hitter should be. Maybe the second half was just a regression to the mean. It’s probable that Pena doesn’t have the same power that he used to be but he’s still can be a 25, even 30 home run hitter, which is all the Rays are asking for him.
But there’s regression to the mean, and then there’s a free-fall. How did Pena basically trade home runs for doubles from the first to second halves? Maybe it could have something to do with Wrigley Field versus Tropicana Field. For a baseline, 2.5% of all plate appearances in 2011 ended in home runs and 10.8% of all hits, while 4.5% of all PA’s ended in doubles and 19.7% of all hits. At Wrigley in 2011 (between the home team and visitors), 2.5% of all plate appearances ended in home runs and 10.9% of all hits, while 4.3% of PA’s ended in doubles and 18.7% of hits. Meanwhile at the Trop, 2.6% of all PA’s ended in a home run and 12.7% of all hits, and just 4.1% of all PA’s ended in a double although still 19.7% of all hits. That appears to show that Wrigley is just about an average park for home runs and just a little below average for doubles while the Trop depresses doubles to an extant but is a clearly above-average average home run park. Maybe Pena realized that and made an adjustment in the second half to take advantage of Wrigley’s bigger gaps compared to the Trop. But it’s not like Pena cut down on his swing at all, and if he did, he did a bad job, since he struck out more often in the second half. We just learned a cool insight about the Trop, but this is more a matter of luck for Pena in terms of flyballs landing in the right spots, and some misfortune in terms of flyballs leaving the ballpark in addition to the simple truth that Pena doesn’t have the type of power he used to have.
After everything we’ve learned here, we can conclude definitively that Carlos Pena is not the player he used to be, although he has learned to take advantage of the ability he has left by making a little more contact, being very patient and getting on base. With that in mind, it makes sense for Pena to hit for a slightly higher average in 2011, get on base a little more, but hit for somewhat less power. I would project a .230/.365/.450 line for Pena in 2011 with 25 doubles, 25 homers, and 85 RBI. That would be good for an OPS improvement compared to Casey Kotchman‘s 2011, and it would provide the Rays with the type of power they need from the first base position. Carlos Pena definitely isn’t the superstar we remember him to be. But he can still be a productive major league player and a feared presence in the middle of the Rays lineup.