With Tony Pena effectively shipped off to the Chicago White Sox, most DBack fans seem to be pleased with the Brandon Allen swap. Looking closely at Pena’s peripherals it is confusing as to why he always seems to be perpetually struggling.
After performing to adequate expectations in 2007 with a stat line of 85.1 IP, 63 H, 36 R (31 ER), 31 BB, 63K with an ERA of 3.27, Pena never blossomed into the dominant closer/set-up man Arizona was hoping he’d be. Looking closely at his 2007 line, Pena’s walks were up at the ratio 3.27 per 9 innings. His strikeouts numbers were decent but not spectacular, despite averaging a 95 mph fastball, giving him a K/9 of 6.64 putting him at 2 to 1 in K/BB per 9. A major sign that Pena may have gotten a bit lucky in ’07 with a very low BABIP of .236 and a LD rate of 11% (way below his usual average of 20%) thereby giving him a true ERA of 4.25, calculated in terms of FIP.
Forgive me if much of this has been previously covered but the point of starting out with Pena’s 2007 season is to show how much of a contrast DBack fans have witnessed since then. In his next one and a half seasons, Pena has effectively cut down his walks to an excellent ratio of 2.11 last year and 2.83 so far this year. His Ks also went up a slight tick giving him a K/9 of 6.44 and 6.94 this season. However, with improved command and a track record of keeping the ball in the yard (on average) with better than average HR/9 ratios of 0.84 in ’07 and 0.62 and 0.77 the last year and a half, things haven’t turned out quite like we hoped. His ERA has been a very high 4.33 and 4.11 so far this season and his BABIP has gone from very low in 2007 to a rather high .329 last season and .352 this season.
One thing Pena has always been despite a fastball averaging in the 95 mph range is hittable, which is strange given the hard slider and high frequency of groundballs allowed in his repertoire. One possible comp I looked at was Kyle Farnsworth, another hard throwing fastball/slider pitcher who, despite his excellent K/9 ratio of 9 or 10 plus, always seems to be on teams regretting his presence on their roster. But to be fair to Pena, this comp doesn’t exactly work: first, Pena’s fastball has more movement (Farnsworth’s FB is notoriously straight making him an extreme FB/LD pitcher) and his command and ability to keep the ball in the park is far better than Farnsworth – but one troubling trait both pitcher’s share is that they always seem to be pitching to contact. Both pitchers are near the average in terms of contact made by opposing hitters inside the strike zone as well as being above the average in terms of getting opposing hitters to chase outside pitches.
As you can see the contact percentage in that area isn’t exactly elite.
Looking at the player traded for Pena it’s hard to argue that Josh Byrnes may have panicked and sold low. Brandon Allen is a 23 year old power hitting first baseman scheduled to try his hand in Reno until a roster spot opens later this season. A lot has been written about Allen’s recent power outage since moving up to AAA, but with improvement in his contact and BB/K ratio (his K% dropped from 26% to 19.5% in his first 274 plate appearances this season while his BB percentage stayed consistent at 11%) signs may be pointing to his improvement as an overall hitter.
Looking over Allen’s contact totals at minorleaguesplits.com does show that his swing may be bit off, this year at AAA Charlotte his GB% has been way up while his LD% are slightly below league average totals. Since coming to Reno after the trade, his power and FB% has seemingly returned, albeit in a small sample of four games.
On the defensive scale, some have criticized his defense since being drafted in 2004 as a Texas high schooler but looking at Sean Smith’s at baseballprojection.com, Allen has rated as an average fielder throughout his minor league career and shouldn’t be seen as too much of a liability at 1B.
Right now, I can see things going either way in this trade. Pena is going to a team that seems to have a fetish for acquiring bullpen power arms that have shown promise in previous seasons, while we acquire a sorely needed near MLB-ready power bat to possibly follow Upton and Reynolds in the order. Going from one hitter friendly park to another shouldn’t affect Pena’s ability to keep the ball in the park (debates between NL and AL batting orders notwithstanding) and as long as Pena continues to keep to BB ratio low and his GB% up around 40+%, mere luck in terms of a lower (or league level) BABIP may be all that is needed to set Tony Pena back on the right track again.
In terms of Brandon Allen, we’ll wait and see come September.