After bouncing between the majors and the minor leagues with a few different organizations, Carlos Pena has taken hold of the first base job in Tampa Bay through a hot start that has seen him hit .300 while delivering considerable power. Pena’s had productive streaks before, and was considered a top prospect just a few years ago. How real is his current level of play, and can he keep it up?

Carlos Felipe Pena was drafted by the Texas Rangers out of Northeastern University in 1998, tenth overall, after a season in which he hit .342 with 13 homers for the Huskies. He signed soon afterward, and was assigned to the Gulf Coast League Rangers for all of two games before moving on to Single-A Savannah for most of the rest of the year:

Year Team          AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
1998 Savannah(A)  117  .325/.385/.598   53% .273   14    6.2%  20.0%

Pena was just 20 years old back then, and other than the low walk rate, it was a fine debut. Pena had displayed a lot of power, and his strikeout rate was high, but not overly so for a power hitter. Pena also had a .376 BABIP-and it was only over 117 at-bats-so his performance needs an adjustment, especially after you take a look at his 1999 campaign at High-A Charlotte:

Year Team           AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
1999 Charlotte(A+) 501  .255/.365/.457   45% .202   39   12.4%  22.6%

Pena still hit the ball with a lot of authority, still posting a solid Isolated Power mark despite dropping to a more normal BABIP of .316. His batting average dropped considerably, but Pena doubled his walk rate, which made up for the dip in average, and his strikeout rate only climbed 2.6 percent with the promotion. This is a much better second effort than a first glance might reflect, but Pena would have to either hit for more power or more average if he was to be a useful first baseman in the major leagues.

His 2000 season at Double-A Tulsa would give us a little more of both, displaying what Pena was capable of:

Year Team        AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2000 Tulsa(2A)  529  .299/.414/.533   42% .234   38   15.6%  16.7%

Not only did Pena hit for more power as he upped his singles totals, he managed to increase his walk rate while decreasing his strikeout rate. He also continued his penchant for getting hit by pitches, collecting 9 more after the previous year’s 16. His .331 BABIP was high for the level, but only by 15 points or so above average. Even if you subtract that from his stats, it’s still a fine campaign with lots of promise.

Baseball Prospectus 2001 was a fan of Carlos Pena after his 2000 season:

Carlos Pena or Kevin Mench will probably take over for Palmeiro. Reid Nichols is very high on Pena, with some justification. Pena hit very well at Double-A, demonstrating phenomenal plate discipline to accompany 66 extra-base hits. He will definitely hit, and his defense is supposedly improving each year. He looks to me like a Fred McGriff-type hitter who should have a very reasonable major league career.

Baseball America ranked Pena as the top prospect in the stacked Rangers’ system:

The Ballpark in Arlington favors left-handed power hitters who can pull the ball. That’s Pena’s main asset…Pena is more than an all-or-nothing power hitter. He reached base in 45 consecutive games last year. He can also run, legging out 36 doubles and stealing 12 bases without getting caught. Defensively, Pena is excellent at first base…Pena sometimes gets too pull-happy and out of control with his swing. The elite power hitters can take the outside pitch to the opposite field with force, but he too often tries to yank it to right field. Pena came in with no concept of the two-strike approach to hitting the Rangers stress. He made great strides in that aspect of his game last season, cutting his strikeouts by 27 while increasing his walks by 27 over the previous season.

Pena would split the 2001 season between Triple-A Oklahoma and Texas, succeeding at both levels before the Rangers would deal him to their divisional foes, the Athletics:

Year Team           AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%   ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2001 Oklahoma(3A)  431  .288/.408/.550   52%  .262   41   15.4%  24.5%
2001 Texas(MLB)     62  .258/.361/.500   50%  .242    5   13.9%  27.4%

A number of things worry me about that season at Triple-A. First of all, his BABIP was .362, which is about 35 points higher than the league average for the level. He’s also playing for Oklahoma, which is in the Pacific Coast League, where you’re supposed to hit; it’s a hitter-friendly league. Considering he cut his strikeouts by a significant amount at Double-A, the increase to 24.5 percent at Triple-A–the highest percentage of his career so far–should be given a closer look. It’s good to see him retain his power and his plate discipline, and an increase in strikeouts is fairly normal upon promotion, but this was a huge jump in strikeouts.

Baseball Prospectus 2002 felt he was ready for the majors right then, although now he was going to be in Oakland, and away from a park that favored him as much as Arlington:

He’s ready. If nothing else positive can be said about signing Andres Galarraga, at least it enabled Carlos Pena to get a full season of Triple-A under his belt. Pena battled a sore rib cage and started slowly at Oklahoma, then scorched the PCL at a .324/.437/.629 clip over the final three months. Last year was the first season in which his fielding numbers matched his lofty defensive reputation. The Rangers had Pena play the outfield in winter ball in hopes of averting a job-sharing arrangement similar to that used by the local gridsters in 1971, when Roger Staubach and Craig Morton alternated starts at quarterback. Now that he’s in Oakland, he’s in the right place to blossom into a star.

Baseball America now rated Pena as the top prospect in Oakland’s system:

Pena showed opposite-field power in the majors that was better than advertised. He had gotten into trouble in the past by trying to pull too many pitches. He has a silky smooth left-handed stroke and always has maintained solid strike-zone judgment…He must stay back on breaking pitches to handle them better. He looks for fastballs too often, contributing to his average of 129 strikeouts the last three seasons. Big league left-handers noticed and held him to one hit and five whiffs in 11 at-bats. Pena sometimes tries to be too flashy at first base, and he got caught in between hops on too many balls while in the majors.

So, Baseball America seemed nervous about the strikeouts and the tendencies that led to Pena struggling at the major league level, and they were right to feel that way. In Pena’s first full season at the majors, split between the Athletics and the Tigers, he struggled at the plate with both his power and his patience. After a hot April with Oakland followed by some May struggles and a demotion, Pena was dealt to the Tigers in a famous three-way deal. Pena, Jeremy Bonderman, and Franklyn German were sent to the Tigers in exchange for Ted Lilly, John-Ford Griffin, Jason Arnold, and cash. Those three players had been in the Tigers’ organization for about ten minutes, as they had just been acquired from the Yankees in exchange for Jeff Weaver. Even with all the talent involved, this deal was one that only worked out long-term for the Tigers thanks to Bonderman, although Lilly helped the A’s for a short time.

Year Team            AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2002 Oakland(MLB)   124  .218/.305/.419  41% .201    4   10.6%  27.0%
2002 Sacramento(3A) 175  .240/.340/.480  50% .240   11   11.7%  23.8%
2002 Detroit(MLB)   273  .253/.321/.462  42% .209   17    8.6%  24.2%

Pena hit for power in his short time in Oakland, but his strikeout totals were no better than his 2001 numbers, and his low .253 BABIP inhibited his production. Things didn’t get much better after a demotion to Sacramento–his low batting average kept his slugging percentage down, although everything else seemed to be in working order. The low average could be attributed to his .276 BABIP as well, so at least at the highest levels of the minor leagues, Pena was doing all right. Once he came in Detroit, the low batting average with a luckier BABIP–.303 during his stint at Detroit, or right around the average–didn’t bode as well.

Besides a short stint at Toledo, Pena would spend 2003 at Detroit and play most of the season in the majors. In 2004 he would spend the whole year in the majors, but would split 2005 between Toledo and the Tigers:

Year Team           AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%   ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2003 Detroit(MLB)  452  .248/.332/.440   40%  .192   27   10.5%  27.2%
2004 Detroit(MLB)  481  .241/.338/.472   46%  .231   26   12.7%  30.4%
2005 Detroit(MLB)  260  .235/.325/.477   44%  .242    8   10.7%  36.5%
2005 Toledo(3A)    257  .311/.424/.525   38%  .214   18   14.6%  21.0%

Pena’s 2003 and 2004 were disappointments generated by his low batting averages, which in turn were products his high strikeout rates. When Pena did make contact, he often got a hit out of it, as evidenced by his BABIP hovering around the .290-.300 mark during 2002-2005. The problem was that his strikeout rates kept rising by the year. Strikeouts are just another kind of out, but when they make up 30 percent of your plate appearances, there isn’t much margin for error on the balls you do put into play. Based on his half-season at Toledo, you could say that Pena still had not adjusted to major league pitching, even by the age of 27. Southpaws were the bane of his existence from 2003-2005, as he managed a meager .216/.284/.418 against them while striking out 32.2 percent of the time.

Jim Leyland took over as the Tigers manager in 2006, and that spelled the end of Pena’s stay in Detroit. He latched on with the Yankees, and after not earning himself a major league call-up from their former Triple-A affliate in Columbus, he enacted an out-clause in his contract that made him a free agent. The Red Sox were in the middle of a bad stretch of injuries, so they picked him up and stashed him at Pawtucket before calling him up to Boston.

For some reason, Pena couldn’t get it together at Columbus, managing just a .194 Isolated Power with an overall line of .260/.367/.454. He exploded during his short stint at Pawtucket though, hitting .459/.512/.865 before the Sox recalled him, and he hit .273/.351/.424 for them in limited duty. The local guy struck out in 27 percent of his MLB plate appearances and only managed a .151 ISO, which probably helped the Red Sox make their decision to let him go.

Cast adrift, Tampa Bay picked up Pena, and he’s managed to fix some of the issues that plagued him in the past. His power is back up (.292 Isolated Power), and his strikeout rate is down to “just” 24.8 percent. He’s still struggling against left-handers, posting a .143/.280/.286 line, but right-handers have suffered against him to the tune of .340/.394/.670. The question that needs asking is just how real is Pena’s performance? He has always had the power, but just needed to adjust to major league pitching in order to utilize it:

Year  P/PA   FB%  LINEDR%  GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP eBABIP  Diff.
2002  4.0   41.7%  21.2%  37.2%  15.0%  15.8%  .288   .332  +.044
2003  3.8   42.1%  20.9%  37.0%   6.5%  13.0%  .302   .329  +.027
2004  4.1   43.7%  16.5%  39.8%   5.4%  18.2%  .289   .285  -.004
2005  3.9   44.5%  18.3%  37.2%  12.3%  24.7%  .293   .303  +.010
2006  3.7   34.8%  17.4%  47.8%   0.0%  12.5%  .364   .294  -.070
2007  3.8   36.0%  15.7%  48.3%   9.4%  31.3%  .342   .277  -.065

Pena’s batted-ball data is interesting for a few reasons. First, he used to be an extreme flyball hitter, which explains much of his underperformance in regards to eBABIP during his early years in the major leagues. He hit a lot of liners, but not so many balls on the ground. There’s a reason Pena had low batting averages: everything he hit was hit far and hard, leaving little room for singles, and ending up with a lot of balls in outfielder’s gloves. There was a change in his approach in 2006, where he seems to have become more of a groundball hitter. This shift in approach may have been undertaken to increase his batting average; in 2006, you can see that his power suffered for it. The reason he outperformed his eBABIP by so much in 2006–besides the small sample size, of course–is because so many of his balls were on the ground and ended up as hits. He has brought this strategy to his new club, and this time the power came with it.

What all of this means is that Pena could very well now be the power hitter with batting average that we saw flashes of in the minor leagues years back, although it seemingly took longer than normal for it to happen. I don’t think he’ll get away with a .342 BABIP all season with his line-drive rate as low as it is, but he should be capable of .280/.340/.550. That is well above his weighted-mean PECOTA forecast, but resembles his 90th percentile of .292/.392/.550 with less patience. Considering the Rays have recently employed Travis Lee, that’s fantastic production at first base for them.

What’s interesting about this change in his style is that it didn’t exist as recently as his time in Columbus. His flyball rate there was 45.2 percent, but he popped up 20.6 percent of those to the infield. Frustration with those issues may have brought on the change, and so far, it’s working. The Rays are in a position to test out someone like Pena, players who need a shot to prove they have the talent they were once thought to have. Pena is certainly making it worth the Rays’ limited investment.

Marc Normandin is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc’s other articles. You can find some of Marc’s other work here.

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