Reasons to Be Wary of Carlos Pena

While there are still some intriguing pitchers left on the free agent market — Roy Oswalt chief among them — the free agent pool for hitters is rapidly drying up. Prince Fielder is still on the market, but outside of him, there is little offense to be found outside of a trade. Casey Kotchman, Derrek Lee, Johnny Damon, Vladimir Guerrero, Brad Hawpe — all these guys have some sort of offensive upside, but not much.

As a result of this dearth of offense, one player is beginning to get some attention on the rumor mill: Carlos Pena. Pena looks like the best remaining free agent option for teams looking to add offense (again, in the non-Prince-Fielder crowd), as he hit 28 home runs and posted a .354 wOBA last season with the Cubs. He may be getting older, but there’s still plenty of pop in his bat.

There was wide speculation that the Yankees could sign Pena to fill their hole at DH, but according to a recent report from Jon Heyman, it seems as though they may not have the payroll space to sign him. But there is still a wide number of teams interested in Pena: the Blue Jays, Brewers, Indians, Mariners, Nationals, Orioles, Pirates, Rangers, and Rays (according to MLBTR, at least).

Despite Pena being the best remaining hitter on the market, though, there are some reasons teams should be wary about guaranteeing him too much money: his BABIP, power production, and platoon splits.

Don’t expect BABIP regression. If you glance at Pena’s player profile, it’s easy to make the assumption that he’s been the victim of some  bad bounces these past few seasons. His batting average has hovered around .225 in two of the last three seasons (and it was below .200 in the third season), due in large part to his high strikeout rate (27-28%) and low batting average on balls in play. His .267 BABIP in 2011 was actually his best BABIP since 2008, and the three projections listed on his page have him ranging anywhere from a .266 to .283 BABIP in 2012.

Considering that Pena’s career BABIP is .278, it seems reasonable to expect him to finally regress and to post a better batting average as a result. That’s forgetting one thing, though: Pena’s BABIP and average tanked right after teams started to heavily shift on him. He posted a .298 BABIP in his first two seasons with the Rays, but then Joe Maddon’s unconventional use of the shift received national attention during the 2008 playoffs. Many American League teams responded the next season by heavily shifting against Pena, and his BABIP has never been the same since. His .267 BABIP last season was probably the most we should expect from him these days.

In many ways, Pena has become a three outcome guy: he either hits a deep flyball, strikes out, or grounds into the teeth of the shift. He’s most successful when he hits a low amount of ground balls, but that’s easier said than done.

Don’t forget Wrigley’s park factors. Considering that Pena was 33 years old last season — around the time when many power hitters begin to decline — it was encouraging to see his power production remain so strong. He hit 28 home runs, exactly as many as he hit the previous year in Tampa Bay, and he had 58 total extra base hits and a .237 ISO. Pena derives much of his offensive production from his power and plate discipline, so his 2011 performance shows that he still has plenty in the tank.

When you take Wrigley Field’s park factors into account, though, things look slightly less rosy for Pena. It’s well known that Wrigley is a hitter’s park, and that is doubly true for left-handed hitters; it increases left-handed homerun production by 19%, and it also provides a 6% boost in doubles as well. Considering that Tropicana Field is the exact opposite — it decreases left-handed home run power by 11% — Pena’s 28 home runs as a Cub looks a little bit less impressive.

Going forward, Pena’s true talent power production is likely lower than it was last season (.237 ISO), but higher than it was with the Rays in 2010 (.211 ISO). That’s still a respectable amount of power, but it does mean that Pena’s no longer among the most powerful hitters in the league. He’s now more of a Corey Hart or Logan Morrison type power hitter, good for 25 homeruns and maybe a bit more.

Platoon issues? Pena used to be fairly effective against both hands, but in recent years, his performance against left-handed pitchers has dramatically declined. Just check out his wOBA splits:

vs. L vs. R
2008 0.295 0.419
2009 0.352 0.389
2010 0.305 0.334
2011 0.266 0.383

In three of the last four seasons, Pena has been at best a .300 wOBA hitter against left-handed pitchers. In 2011, he was just as effective against right-handed hitters as he was back when he was successful in Tampa Bay, but his performance against left-handed pitchers dropped off a cliff. So the question is: how much of this was a small sample size fluke, and how much of this was talent related? How much regression should we expect?

Depending on the roster construction of the team acquiring him, it might be ideal to platoon Pena and only play him against right-handed pitchers. The Rays could conceivably do something along these lines, but if this is their plan, they would likely not want to pay him like a full-time player.

So despite being the best non-Prince-Fielder hitter still on the free agent market, there are plenty of questions and concerns about Carlos Pena. He’s not the offensive juggernaut that he was back in 2008-2009, and with some BABIP and ISO regression, his 2.6 WAR from last season look like an optimistic, high-end projection for him. And if a team acquires him to be a DH, his WAR total would take a bit of a tumble.

Pena likely won’t get much on the free agent market, and teams are justified if they don’t want to pay him as much as he received last season with the Cubs ($10 million). He’s a good extra part for teams looking to supplement their existing offense, but if a team is looking at Pena as a solution to their offensive woes, they likely aren’t going to be happy with what they receive.

Piper was the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library.

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Big Bad Baseball
12 years ago

Based on your argument it seems like his value would be maximized if the Yankees signed him. The park factor, and the fact that they would platoon him, would get the most utility out of his bat. I guess the DH would hurt him, but would the Yankees even care?