Brayan Pena was a low key signing that probably registered barely more than a footnote for even the most devoted of Tigers fans last off-season. He had been a rather ordinary backup catcher for several seasons in Atlanta and Kansas City. His resume featured nothing too notable except he probably had the requisite ability to don the tools of his trade and field his position fairly well. Being a switch-hitter probably helped a little in keeping him employed as well. The Tigers needed a backup catcher after Gerald Laird found the greener pastures of a two-year guaranteed deal with the Braves. Signing Pena wasn't a shock...you could have inserted the name of any generic backup catcher who was floating around and gotten a similar shrug.
However a funny thing happened. The Tigers happened to waltz smack into signing Pena for his offensive breakout season. For a career with only hints of potential at the plate being occasionally flashed, Pena has been a fairly consistent offensive performer for the Tigers save for a slow stretch in the month of July. He has become a popular figure in a short time with a segment of fans due to his offensive production which stands in stark contrast to the running injury issues and continuing offensive struggles for primary catcher Alex Avila.
How has he done it? How "real" is it in terms of sustainability? How valuable are his contributions on offense? How does it play into the decision to bring him back in 2014? All good questions...let's poke around a bit and see what we find...
I had never looked at Brayan Pena's numbers much but picked a good day to do it...as of Thursday's off-day for the Tigers he has exactly as many Plate Appearances (226) as he did for the whole year in 2012 while a Royal. He also has exactly as many at-bats (212) as last year. I did a double-take to make sure that was right. So it's a good time to see where this offensive improvement is coming from.
He has 15 more singles, 1 more extra-base hit (XBH), and three fewer walks than last year. That's the question. Where did those 15 singles come from? How much value do 15 singles hold for the Tigers moving forward?
Pena's K-rate of 11.1% (most stats pulled from Fangraphs) is right around his career mark of 11.4. His BB-rate of merely 2.7% is lower but it was already low for his career at 4.7% so we aren't talking about a big swing. There is really is no smoking gun in a change of approach via those numbers.
BABIP (Batting Average Balls In Play)
Let's not get into the argument over the merits of BABIP today. Let's just show the numbers and see that he is having a massive spike of success on batted balls this season for whatever the reason. It would be interesting to know if he's generating better contact this year to get those extra 15 singles....or is he just finding holes. If he was actually hitting the ball harder you might think he would have more than 1 extra XBH. (He has exactly the same number of doubles, one less triple, and two more homers this year over last season) Again, without arguing BABIP (though I can't stop anyone), the question boils down to your belief that he is doing something different to create this success or that he is simply having some good fortune in the relatively small sample of 226 plate appearances (PA) that isn't likely to be a career trend.
On one hand it's easy to look at 15 extra singles and think it doesn't sound like much. But on the other hand...in 226 PA, that's quite a few hits. In looking at other batted ball data beyond BABIP, we can see that his Line Drive Percentage has actually dipped slightly with his Ground Ball Rate going up a small amount. This almost seems counterintuitive...you would think his numbers would dip with more grounders and fewer liners. But they've spiked up as we've noted. Odd.
Pena has had a good year at the plate. Maybe it's just that simple and there isn't any real explanation beyond "that's baseball". Certainly he's almost surely had a better campaign than the Tigers hoped for when they made the move. The big question is for next year. Do they want to pay him and hope he gets those extra singles again? Or are they happy with Bryan Holaday and also know James McCann is doing well in Double-A and eventually in the pipeline? Is there a bigger move brewing to get a frontline catcher to replace Alex Avila?
More importantly for Pena, will he find a chance to play more someplace else? Will he take it? Is there a two-year deal out there like Laird received? How is the industry viewing the fine offensive season Brayan Pena is enjoying?
I don't fret about the backup catcher much. The "races" in Spring Training for the backup spots are more a creation of bored beat writers rather than really important factors on whether a club will ultimately contend ...but the Tigers can certainly take heart that they chose the right guy off the street this year. However despite having a fine season in 2013, I just have a hunch he goes back to a .250 hitter with no walks and limited power. I just don't see any change in his approaches from the past to indicate this year being "the new Pena" for the long haul.
As for Pena's defense? I will not pretend to be an expert in this area (or expert in any area for that matter except for maybe BBQ joints on KC baseball road trips). It certainly seems like the Tigers problems at throwing out base-stealers is a problem that stems from the pitchers and their inability to hold runners. BYB contributor "GWilson" has pointed out that the pitching staff's ERA is lower when Avila catches (though last night's 20-4 drubbing in Boston may have changed that!) and the Tigers are 25-26 when Pena starts. I sometimes do wonder why Pena sets up so far outside on some pitches...this can't help get the occasional call on a borderline pitch. We do know that Pena blocked the plate and took a big shot in Seattle early this season to help save a game and that play in itself may counterbalance any "pitch framing" issues if they exist. My guess is that when you judge the whole body of his work defensively he's about average.
My hunch, given the commitment shown in the past to Ramon Santiago and Don Kelly, is that the Tigers will reward Pena with a solid one-year offer for next season. If he fails to get a multi-year deal elsewhere, he'll probably stick it out and sign in Detroit. Even if he regresses next season he's still an ordinary backup catcher based off his previous body of work. However if a club gives him two or more years, he almost has to take that for his career's sake. I would think the Tigers will see McCann coming along in their system and feel they don't need to commit long term to Pena beyond one more season. Holaday appears to have the chance to be a fair backup option as well.
Whether or not Pena returns, we can always remember the fine season he flashed in 2013. His personality has also been a breath of fresh air as well since he seems to be having fun and enjoying his job. I think most of us appreciate seeing that in a ballplayer to some extent. Credit the Tigers for taking a chance and picking the right horse this past off-season.