Carlos Pena put up astronomical numbers in 2007. However, since then we've see a more true talent level from Pena during the last two years. After posting a .430 weighted on-base average (wOBA) in '07, he has put up back-to-back seasons of .374 wOBA. That a very good hitter when you consider .330 is average and .400 is superstar level.
This April, Pena got off to a similar start. His wOBA through the first month of the season was .373. However, after his latest cold streak (1-40), his wOBA sits well below average at .295 on the young season. Even before Pena was given most of last night off, people were expressing concern of Pena's latest cold streak.
It's still surprising that some of the locals express frustration when Pena slumps. Granted, 1-40 streaks are uncommon, and downright terrible, but not out of the question with Pena; especially in the month of May. Looking at his splits, Pena's .329 wOBA in May is the lowest of any other month. Since Pena is in the middle of another slump and people are getting anxious, let's take a more in-depth look at his season so far.
Pena owns a career batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .285. Of course we have a small sample size, but thus far his BABIP is .208. A large part of this is lack of line drives and an increase in groundballs. Pena has maintained a line drive percentage of 18.3% in his big league career. So far, he is hitting liners at a 13.2% clip. In place of the line drives, his groundball percentage is up nearly 5% more than his career number of 35.9. Going deeper, his BABIP on line drives is .500; a .221 drop from his career level.
In addition to the decrease in liners is a decrease in home run to fly ball rate. Currently, 14.3% of flyballs hit by Pena are going yard. This is down from his 20.2% career rate and near 24% as a member of the Rays.
The quick and easy way out of this would be to suggest regressions to the mean in all categories. More liners, a higher BABIP, and more balls jumping the fence would up everyone's :)%, but it's not that easy.
As we saw last year with Pat Burrell, old man skills (walks, strikeouts, home runs with little speed) don't always regress, especially when you have more than three decades worth of candles on your cake. Looking at BABIP alone, Pena has been in a decline over the past few years. His BABIP in 2008 was a modest .298, but dropped to .250 last year. As mentioned, he's down to .208 this year. Is it a trend or just bad luck? It's too early to tell, but something to watch.
The good news for us is there are some differences between Pena and Burrell. Pena is still walking nearly 15% of the time; a number he has hit for the past two seasons. And believe it or not, his strikeout percentage of 32% is actually down from 2008 and 2009 levels.
Also unlike Burrell, Pena is still hitting fastballs. His weighted value on fastballs (w/FB) is a healthy 6.3 early on. Without a trained scouting eye to analyze his swing, that number would suggest his bat speed is good enough to turn on heaters. On the other hand, Pena is being killed by the change-up. As we all know the off-speed pitch is meant to look like a fastball, but fools the hitter later on.
Pena has a w/CH of -3.1 on the change-up. In fact, his struggles are very similar to Ben Zobrist. Both hitters are struggling with change-ups right now, and are expanding their zone more than usual. Not recognizing a change-up early enough could cause a hitter to roll over on a lot of pitches causing more groundballs. In addition, if a hitter is thinking fastball, and instead gets a change-up, the timing difference could cause some weaker hit flyballs. Whether the scouting report is out or not, Pitchers are throwing change-ups 16.6% of the time against Carlos - up nearly 7% over the past two years.
Because of his skill-set and his age, I'm not 100% confident in saying "yep, this is just a bad luck streak and Pena will bounce back." Meanwhile, looking at the steady k/bb rates, the continued success against fastballs, and the potential for flukey batted ball data, I think that statement is closer the truth than any real cause for concern.
Even with the day-off (mostly) to clear his head, there is a chance that the next few weeks could be as equally as frustrating as the past few for Pena, but if history repeats itself, by mid-June everyone will be all smiles.