Cubs Tab Carlos Pena for First Base

For the last four seasons the Cubs’ biggest bats have been right handed. Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, and Geovany Soto had nary a left-handed complement. The Cubs tried to provide one with Kosuke Fukudome, but he hasn’t been a middle of the order producer. Now they’re giving it another shot by signing Carlos Pena to a one-year, $10 million contract.

Last season Pena’s numbers resembled those that he produced in his mid-20s. While that might sound good, for Pena it meant a low batting average, a middling OBP, and a decent amount of power. It wasn’t until his late 20s that he blossomed into a high-OPB, power-crazy first baseman. Yet each year he’s seen a decline in his average and OBP. It culminated in 2010 with a .196/.325/.407 line, which is more reminiscent of his 2003 season with the Tigers than any of his previous seasons with the Rays.

In an off-season filled with lucrative multi-year deals, Pena had to settle for just one season. It would appear, then, that he has an eye toward raising his value in hopes of landing a longer term contract next off-season, when he might be a more reasonable alternative to Prince Fielder. If he’s going to bounce back, he’ll need to change a few things that held him back in 2010. A change of scenery could help.

The most noticeable change in Pena’s numbers is a spike in his ground ball rate. Nearly 45 percent of his balls in play were hit on the ground, quite a jump from the 29 percent he hit in 2009 and his 36.9 percent career rate. His BABIP also took a dive in 2010, all the way down to .222 against a career average of .272. The difference might have been a blip, then– something that might even out next season?

Of the 2,483 pitches Pena has put into play during his career, 52 percent of them have gone to right field. Last year he pulled balls at about the same rate, but it was the types of balls in play that were the problem. Over 60 percent of the balls he pulled were on the ground, a nearly 10 percent increase from his career rate. Combined with some teams employing a defensive shift, it certainly can lead to an abnormally low BABIP. That’s clearly going to have to change if he’s going to succeed with the Cubs.

When a team signs a player to a $10 million contract, especially when he’s coming off a poor season, we can assume that they’ve broken him down and found something that they think they can fix. As outsiders we’re not privy to that type of information. The Cubs have made a significant gamble, and the number suggest it might not carry a high potential for payoff. But if Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo can fix whatever caused Pena to pull balls on the ground in 2010, they’ll finally have that power-hitting left-handed bat they’ve sought all these years.

Even if Pena produces something between what he did in 2009 and 2010, he could produce value somewhere close to his $10 million salary. In 2008, when he produced a .374 wOBA and a positive UZR, he was worth $18.1 million in the WAR-to-dollars conversion. Even when his UZR turned negative in 2009 (and he produced the same .374 wOBA), he was worth $12.6 million. With a wOBA in the .350 range and some quality defense at first base, Pena could again cross that $10 million mark. But, again, the Cubs are gambling that he’ll be closer to that .374 mark with good defense. While the downside is considerable — Pena was worth just over $4 million in 2010 — even a modest bounce back could mean the Cubs getting even value. A full offensive recovery could lead to considerable surplus value.

If Pena does recover, the Cubs could be just a few breaks away from contention in 2011. A healthy, powerful Pena, along with a recovered Ramirez, could help fuel the team’s offense. The pitching staff could also see some improvements in 2011. Each of the team’s five presumptive starters — Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Silva, Tom Gorzelanny, Randy Wells, and Ryan Dempster, had a FIP under 4.00 in 2010. These combined could lead the Cubs back into the picture for a relatively weak NL Central.

We hoped you liked reading Cubs Tab Carlos Pena for First Base by Joe Pawlikowski!

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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Eric
Guest
Eric

$10M for a guy coming off a .196 season seems bizarre but at least it’s only a one-year deal for a guy with a high power ceiling, and compared to the Jayson Werth contract, looks like a lesson in fiscal sanity.

mb21
Guest
mb21

This is Fangraphs and we’re talking about batting average?

Rich
Guest
Rich

Contrary to a lot of people’s opinions, Batting Average is a relevant stat. Its less relevant than OBP, but OBP and SLG are directly derived from BA.

Its tough to be a decent hitter while hitting .196, no matter how much plate discipline or power you have.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11

Yes, we are.

It’s .196, which most people understand is such an extreme that it cannot be due to simply good/bad luck on BABIP.

When it’s that extreme, it’s significant.

If someone were hitting .446, we’d be discussing that “batting average” as well, as it’s very likely someone could “good luck BABIP” there was to .446

There’s no need to so self-limited other that stat-snobbery is empowering?

The English Language
Guest
The English Language

“There‚Äôs no need to so self-limited other that stat-snobbery is empowering?”

What?!? I demand an apology.

Ben
Guest
Ben

But Carlos Pena batting .196–while awful, to be sure–is not as big a deal as Vlad Guerrero (or to take an even more extreme example, Jeff Francoeur) batting .196 because Pena’s value does not rely on him being a high-contact or high-average hitter. He can provide plenty of offensive value and only hit for a .235 average.

Citing his BA in isolation doesn’t make sense because of his particular skill set, and BA is only marginally relevant to the discussion.

Synovia
Member
Synovia

only if he continues to have an isoP in the .300+ range, which he hasn’t.

As BA lowers, so does isoP and isoD. If you can’t get good contact, you’re not going to hit for power, or walk much.

As a first baseman, he needs an OPS in the high 800s to be valuable, and thats real tough to do when you hit .195. Essentially you need an isoD of .150+, and an isoP in the .350+ range. Thats tough to do when you’re hitting a ton of weak ground balls.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11

What?!? I demand an apology.

You’re sorry. *grin*

Not sure an apology is warranted, despite the demand for one.

I’m not a big fan of the disregarding comments in reference to a specific stat, without addressing the accuracy (or not) of the overall conclusion. Seems to me that the only reason for comments like these are to let people know that certain stats or ideas are beneath discussion … at least here at FG (Do you read all the articles and comments here?)

Rather than just make a snarky comment, why not provide a point or counterpoint that shows the inaccuracy of the comment?

Describing that even though his BA was .196, his wOBA was .326 and close to league average. Pena generally has a very good wOBA for such a lowish BA (but usually better than .196).

There are some reasons to refer to BA from time to time, especially if a specific point is being made. I don’t see many reasons never to discuss certain stats.

I apologize for assuming the reason for your comments (empowerment).

Jason B
Guest
Jason B

Holy cow Circle, that apology line went ten feet over your head…it was made by the English language, because you had just mangled it six ways from Sunday. Wasn’t a serious request in the least.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11

Pena’s swing path is “home run or nothing” (simply stated).

Throw him in the Mark Reynolds category.

You keep measuring the good v. bad, and when the bad takes over, you cut bait.

But despite the low average, he’s still rather valuable.

Of course he just moved to a division that features Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Prince Fielder at 1B … but I think he’ll be league average or better (2.0 – 2.8 WAR) even while hitting .230. He’ll dump 30 homers and walk 80-95 times.