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Not Much Good Comes When Carlos Pena Expands his Zone

It has proved to be a rough summer thus far for all-star 1st baseman Carlos Pena.  As Pena's batting average has dipped south of the Mendoza Line (.219), Joe Maddon made the decision this weekend to drop him out of the cleanup spot and alternate him 5th/6th with Pat Burrelldepending on the handedness of the opposing pitcher.  Pena has always been a low batting average,high on-base, high slugging hitter. Let's take a look at some of Pena's numbers during his time with the Rays.


2007 17.40% 29.00% 0.411 0.627
2008 16.40% 33.90% 0.377 0.494
2009 15.80% 36.60% 0.352 0.501

The walks are still quite impressive though they have been trending down. The alarming trend is the strikeout rate which is increasing substantially for the 2nd straight year. Pena's BB/K ratio has declined from .73 in 2007 to .51 in 2009. As the strikeout percentage has increased, the on-base percentage has plummeted. 

Why have the strikeouts increased so dramatically?

O-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Swing% Z-Contact%
2007 19.80% 42.50% 71.10% 78.40%
2008 20.80% 48.70% 70.70% 77.00%
2009 23.10% 42.20% 74.10% 73.80%


Pena is swinging more frequently both in and out of the zone, while making contact less often. He is making 5.5% less contact out of the zone and 3.2% less contact in the zone. More swings equals fewer walks, more whiffs equals higher strikeout rates. His whiff % of 33.9% rivals his 2005 and 2006 numbers from Detroit and Boston.

I went back through Pena's July to look at how many strikes he had on him when he chased pitches out of the zone:


0 Strikes 7
1 Strike 10
2 Strikes 13

Of his 30 July swings outside the zone, only one was put into fair territory, a ground out. 9 pitches were fouled off and 20 were swung on and missed. The 30 swings resulted in 13 outs.

Lastly, what type of pitch is Carlos chasing:

Change Up 4
FourSeam 13
Slider 7
Cutter 3
Curve 1
TwoSeam 1

Pena is a fastball hitter. As he sees fewer fastballs, he seems to be chasing the bad ones.

A lot is made noise is made when managers move a player down in the order to "take some pressure off of them." In Pena's case I think there is pretty clear evidence he has been pressing. As mentioned, Pena is a fastball hitter and has a good ability to really lock in on fastball counts. The table below compares Pena's monthly O-Swing%, % of fastballs seen, and wOBA.

O-Swing% FB% wOBA
April-07 19.4% 61.7% 0.295
May-07 17.4% 62.9% 0.462
June-07 18.1% 56.6% 0.420
July-07 21.3% 48.1% 0.403
August-07 19.4% 52.5% 0.422
September-07 21.7% 48.6% 0.507
April-08 20.4% 51.7% 0.330
May-08 22.2% 52.8% 0.315
June-08 19.7% 60.70% 0.405
July-08 25.5% 49.3% 0.372
August-08 19.5% 59.2% 0.450
September-08 17.0% 58.4% 0.392
April-09 18.8% 61.6% 0.400
May-09 20.6% 58.7% 0.376
June-09 28.6% 58.4% 0.384
Jul-09 24.7% 51.80% 0.271

As you can see, the past two months were Pena's worst two months when in comes to expanding his zone. I consider that a good indicator of a player pressing. Falling behind in the count by swinging at balls is a good way to avoid seeing fastballs within the zone.

So what's the remedy?

I think it would do Carlos a world of good to really focus on shrinking his zone.  As he gets more selective within the zone, that should result in higher contact rates. Nothing good whatsoever is happening out of the zone. It may lead to more called strikes, but Pena is at his best when he minimizes his zone. He should be ready to lock and load if he gets a first pitch fastball right where he wants it, but he needs to avoid chasing fastballs elsewhere just because he is starving for his pitch. Ben Zobrist has found himself zone fastball starved as well, but has done a nice job of late doing what he can with the offspeed stuff late in counts. He takes pitches for strikes when they aren't what he wants. You rarely see Zobrist hase with less than two strikes. This is the approach that has allowed Pena to have some of his greatest success. I am hopeful he will recapture his eagle eye.