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Thursday, March 24, 2011
Why Pena could bounce back with Cubs

By Justin Havens and Derek Czenczelewski

When the Chicago Cubs signed first baseman Carlos Pena to a one-year, $10 million deal in the offseason, it raised eyebrows.
Carlos Pena
Pena

Pena’s reputation as a power hitter who is slick with the glove is well-established. His consistent failure to make contact, however, helped him post a .196 batting average in 2010 - the lowest among qualified players.

Pena’s .149 batting average on off-speed pitches was 81 points lower than the league average (.230). Just as poor was Pena’s two-strike miss percentage on swings which was 36 percent (league average was 21 percent). He put only 28 percent of off-speed swings in play, 12 percent below the league average.

In addition to his off-speed woes, Pena showed inconsistency when facing fastballs. He put 34 percent of fastball swings in play, 10 percent below the league average.

In other words, Pena struggled across the board.

With that said, the Cubs signed a power-hitting first baseman who provides a left-handed bat in a right-handed-heavy lineup. Pena likely will be one of just three left-handed hitters in the regular starting lineup. Being left-handed is nice, but there’s reason to think Pena could bounce back this season.

While batting-average-on-balls-in-play (BABIP) is not indicative of good or bad luck, comparing it to a player’s career marks can be instructive. In this instance, Pena’s BABIP was just .222 in 2010, a full 57 points below his career mark. Plus, it was the second-lowest mark among all qualified hitters last season (see chart).

Pena’s walk rate stayed relatively constant (15.3 percent in 2009, 14.9 percent in 2010), while his strikeout rate actually dropped from 34.6 percent to 32.6.

Another interesting facet to Pena’s season –- and reason to anticipate a resurgence -- is that he hit an unusual number of balls on the ground last season. After he recorded a ground ball-to-fly ball ratio no greater than 0.84 from 2007-09, Pena’s ratio jumped to 1.11 in 2010. In other words, he hit more balls on the ground last season than he did in the air -– not a recipe for success for a power hitter. Fortunately, the percentage of his fly balls which left the yard remained steady at 21.2 percent, right in line with his 2008-09 averages.

There’s no getting around the fact that Pena’s contact issues could signal an erosion of skill and that a decline in performance has begun. However, the league's second-worst BABIP, combined with what appears to be a ground ball-fly ball anomaly, suggests Pena’s 2010 season was more of a result of bad luck than a complete collapse of skill.

The Cubs and their $10 million investment are certainly hoping that’s the case.