Astros Agree to Terms With Carlos Pena

Yesterday, the Astros announced the signing of Carlos Pena. Pena is expected to play first base and DH for the Astros. In a corresponding move, Mickey Storey was designated for assignment to clear room on the 40-man roster. Storey has been the bubble man this year, getting claimed off waivers by the Yankees and then, when the Yankees waived him, re-claimed by the Astros.

The Astros have been linked to Lance Berkman as a possible DH, and he may in fact still be in play, but the signing of Pena seems to have tabled the discussion, at least for now.

This leaves the roles of Brett Wallace and Nate Freiman immediately in question, as well as Jonathan Singleton, if and when he gets called up in 2013 (I believe his arbitration clock will be delayed and we won’t see him until June or even July.

Pena struggled last season with the Rays, batting just .197, though he did draw a hefty number of walks and hit 19 home runs. Historically, he’s been something of a Three True Outcomes kind of a guy.

But are his 2012 struggles behind him?

Bill James projects Pena to hit 209/340/408 in 2013, but James’ predictions are well-known for their sheer optimism. If it’s optimistic to expect Pena to hit just above the Mendoza line (albeit with 24 home runs and a 15.2% walk rate), should we as Astros fans be worried?

First, a table:

GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB IFH% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% Sw-Strk%
Career 0.82 17.9% 37.0% 45.1% 10.1% 19.6% 4.3% 23.0% 71.6% 45.4% 45.7% 78.4% 69.4% 46.1% 57.3% 13.6%
2012 0.87 20.2% 37.2% 42.6% 16.5% 14.3% 6.9% 27.4% 67.4% 43.6% 52.6% 75.5% 66.9% 40.3% 57.3% 14.0%

Most of the numbers are right in line with where you expect Carlos Pena to be, with a few things jumping off the page at you. Notably, his Z-Swing% (percentage of pitches swung at inside the zone), which fell from 71.6% to 67.4%, his HR/FB rate (the home run to fly ball ratio), which jumped from 4.3% to 6.9%, his IFFB% (infield fly ball percentage), which jumped from 10.1% to 16.5%, and his IFH% (infield hits), which jumped from 4.3% to 6.9%.

Pena had 600 plate appearances in 2012, so we’re not really dealing with sample size issues here. So we have a pretty good idea of what Pena was doing in 2012. The picture appears to be of someone who’s perhaps a little too patient at the plate: Taking strikes in the zone, waiting for his pitch, and either A) not getting it, or B) putting it in the infield, rather than over the wall, once he gets it.

Now, some good news:


Those are Pena’s 19 home runs from 2012, with an overlay of Minute Maid Park. He’s a left-handed pull hitter who sprays a couple of shots to center field. Only one wouldn’t have left MMP, with another one questionable. Still, those seventeen home runs would have put him second on the Astros in 2012.

This signing accomplishes a few things:

1) At $2.9m plus incentives, it’s a relatively low-cost insurance policy for Wallace and Freiman at first base and DH.
2) At $2.9m plus incentives, no one’s going to feel bad sitting Pena to make room for Jonathan Singleton when he gets called up.
3) Pena has a reputation as a solid clubhouse guy, and may do very well for the youngsters on the squad.
4) Pena can be counted on to walk about 15% of the time. This kind of patience may rub off on the youngsters, and should help burn through starters.
5) Pena has a reputation as a solid defensive first baseman, with a UZR/150 of 4.2 in 2012.
6) If he has a good first half, when Singleton gets called up, it’s conceivable that Pena could be flipped to a contender for pieces. If he doesn’t, no big deal. He’s only making $2.9m.

And another thing to pay attention to:

Pena vLHP 11.5% 39.6% 0.29 .176 .302 .333 .290 85
Pena vRHP 15.8% 26.3% 0.60 .206 .342 .363 .317 104
Freiman vLHP 3.00 .400 .474 .533
Freiman vRHP 0.55 .234 .329 .328

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