You never know when an older player is done. Eric Chavez looked finished. Teams thought he was done; his back would never allow him to play well for an extended stretch again. History supported those thoughts. Now Chavez is hitting like it’s 2004. Baseball can make you look stupid in tons of ways, many of which involve overestimating young players or underestimating old players. I’m going to make myself a target, because I’m beginning to think Carlos Pena’s best days are in the rearview mirror.
There’s an inherent danger in dealing with any three true outcomes hitter. By rule, these batters strike out a lot, thereby placing more emphasis on their abilities to hit for power and walk. Any batter striking out more than a quarter of the time without power and walks is on his way out of the league unless he’s a brilliant defender and baserunner. Pena is decidedly not a great defender or runner. To provide value, he has to hit for power and he has to be amongst the league leaders in walk rate. Otherwise, he’s a negative.
Pena is still walking more than 14 percent of the time. The problem is lacking power. Drawing walks is a good thing, but it cannot be the only thing. Right now, Pena’s only offensive skill is drawing walks. Looking at Pena’s numbers since the All-Star Game means using an arbitrary endpoint. But you can use any distance from now through the season’s beginning and the results will be the same.
Pena has made 122 trips to the plate since the Midsummer Classic and has 14 walks, 17 hits (six of which went for extra bases), and 34 strikeouts. That works out to a strikeout in 28 percent of his plate appearances and a sub-.100 Isolated Power. On the season, Pena’s ISO is .152. The only other time he’s finished a season with more than 300 plate appearances and an ISO of less than .200 came back in 2003 (and he still finished 40 points higher then).
It’s hard to foresee a bounce back. This isn’t a case where Pena is hitting rockets at people so much as it seems that his bat speed has declined. Pena’s ability to hit fastballs is crucial to his success, given his inability hit anything with a wrinkle. Seemingly every series, there is an at-bat where Pena hits a moderately deep flyball that dies; those instances leave you wondering what a younger Pena does with the same pitch. Perhaps that’s unfair, but we all knew this day would come at some point. Maybe this is just a bad season and Pena will rebound with a new team next season. Or maybe he’ll turn back the clock for the season’s final few weeks. I hope so. But I wouldn’t bet on it.