I will tell you up front this is not a piece I enjoyed writing because Pena is one of my favorite players on the ball club. I love that he is always smiling and looks very happy to be playing baseball, seems to be an incredible teammate, and is a great spokesperson for the club both on and off the field. Of course, all of those home runs don’t hurt; Pena’s homers are never the cheap kind and are usually the majestic ones that where the crack of the bat echoes like my child screaming in the church sanctuary. After all, the Rays have only paid Pena $14.8m over the last three seasons while producing nearly $54m in value according to Fangraphs.
2007 was indeed a special year for Pena as he was one of the best bargains in all of baseball when you consider he put up a .282/.411/.627 line with 46 homers and 121 RBI for a last place team for a measly $800,000. Since then, his salary has (deservedly) gone up while the dollar value of his production has gone down. In this, the final year of the three-year deal the Rays rewarded Pena with prior to the 2008 season, Pena is set to make $10.5m. That means he would have to at least perform at last year’s level to produce what he is being paid. If he fails to do so, it will be his first season in Tampa Bay where his salary out-paced his production. In 2009, the only Rays’ batters to be paid more than they produced were: Willy Aybar, Dioner Navarro, Fernando Perez, and Pat Burrell.
Burrell is an interesting name to come into the conversation because he has man similar traits with Pena. He is in his 30’s, he is slow on the basepaths, and the three most likely outcomes of a Pena at bat are a walk, a strikeout, or a home run. After all, Pena came within two homers of having as many homers as he had singles last year. Bill James has an excellent theory on these types of players that he calls Old Man Skills. Derek Zumsteg over at USS Mariner wrote a terrific piece to explain this theory in 2008 to predict what may happen with Richie Sexson when he was with Seattle and why Sexson was falling off the table so quickly. As that article states:
…when a player’s experience combines with ability to produce the greatest production, generally happens at about 27. It can happen a lot earlier, it can happen a lot later (and those spikes are more common than I think is usually recognized) but generally speaking, players get better until about 26-28, then start their decline.
That progression’s led to one of the great discoveries of sabermetric research. Once people started to be able to look at huge sample sizes over long periods of time, we found players who display old player skills don’t age well at all. If a player debuts hitting .280 with tons of walks and monster power, they generally don’t have the kind of careers that a top young speed-and-contact hitter might.
It makes sense. If a player has a really fast bat, they can afford to lose a little of that as they age, get better at recognizing pitches and driving them. But if they’re already reliant on those things, losing that bit of bat speed means their average goes from .275 to .250 to .225 and they’re no longer effective hitters.
Most recently, Mitchel Lichtman wrote a two–part series about aging of batters that is a fantastic read. Two charts jumped out at me while reading his work – this one and this one. The first chart shows that players in the last 30 years do a better job of preserving their production whether it be from pure conditioning or not-so-pure conditioning. The second chart shows that players with more experience slow the aging process but it has to be a lot of experience. Pena does not fall into that group because he has parts of nine major league seasons under his belt and has 3714 plate appearances. Pena does keep himself in terrific shape which gives hope for those that want to believe in the first chart but the data in the second chart is equally as powerful because Pena would at best fall somewhere in between the two lines. Regardless, he turns 32 early in the 2010 season and all groups of players on that chart begin a decline in production unless their name is Barry Bonds.
Bonds and Rodriguez had both the major league experience and the plate appearances to be considered the exception. Both players started an overall decline at age 31 but it is no secret why Bonds rebounded to become Ruthian at an advanced age. Pena is no either of those players but my point is, even the great ones show decline as they get into their 30’s and given the fact Pena is already in danger of being paid more than he produces, I do not think it is in the Rays’ best interest to give him another long-term deal after this season. The Rays were in this situation when they were pursuing Burrell and both Keith Law and R.J. Anderson were pessimistic about the second year of production with Burrell when the contract was signing but neither could have predicted the fall-off Burrell experienced in 2009 as he fought through his neck and upper back issues.
If the Rays need a refresher in what can happen to aging cornermen exhibiting old man skills, they should open up the 1998 year book. In 1997, Paul Sorrento hit 31 homers for the Mariners at the age of 31 while hitting .269/.345/.514 with a 123 OPS+ in the Seattle Kingdome which graded out just barely above average in the historical park factors. The Devil Rays signed him as a free agent and paid him $5m over two seasons in which he hit a total of 28 homers while putting up OPS+’s of 85 and 2 before his career ended at 33 years old. Richie Sexson hit 34 homers and had a .264/.338/.504 line with a 117 OPS+ at age 31 for Seattle in Safeco Field. After that season, Sexson would hit just 33 more homers and have OPS+’s of 84 and 88 before leaving baseball for good at age 33.
The immediate reaction to comparing those three players might be to point out that Pena has better patience than the other two and should be able to slow the decline but check out his BB/K ratio compared to Sorrento and Sexson:
Simply put, I think it is in the Rays’ best interest to make 2010 Pena’s last year in a Rays uniform unless he is willing to come back for something along the lines of 2yrs/16m. Free agent dollars for players in their 30’s are typically about paying a player for what they’ve done rather than for what they will do and a budget-minded club such as the Rays cannot afford to hand out those types of contracts too often. Overpaying aging free agent sluggers is what got other budget-minded clubs in trouble such as San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City.
For 2010, the projections for Carlos Pena are rather consistent from a skills perspective.
Each group predicts a bounce back to Pena’s batting average but only the fans and our own Fanball projections predict an OPS consistency from Pena’s past production while all others call for the beginning of the decline. His strikeout rate and walk rate are predicted to remain rather consistent outside of the fans who predict he will maintain the 16% walk rate he has demonstrated the past three seasons in Tampa. If you consider Pena’s fan projections to be the most optimistic, even those numbers would only place him in the bottom half of all first basemen in 2010 based on Wins Above Replacement. Clearly, the Rays lack an immediate solution for a 2011 first baseman but if the Rays remain in-house to solve that issue, the easy answer would be to shift Ben Zobrist to first base and open up second base for Reid Brignac or Sean Rodriguez.
The free agent class for first baseman in 2011 includes players like Lance Berkman, Derrek Lee, Lyle Overbay, and Albert Pujols. The last name is not even a consideration, and I would rather the club retain Pena than pay the dollars to sign Lee or Berkman, especially at their age, if they feel there is not an internal solution for first base. This is another reason why I wish the Rays were one of the names at the forefront of all of these Adrian Gonzalez trade rumors. He only turns 28 around the same time Pena turns 32 and is a guy on his way up production-wise rather than one that will be fighting the old man skills battle from this point forward. 2010 should be a great season for the Rays but it is likely to be Pena’s last one in Tampa Bay.
Past 2010 Pieces:
Ben Zobrist (12/20)
B.J. Upton (12/3)
James Shields (11/29)