Chicago Cubs first baseman Carlos Pena has been heart-rendingly bad so far in 2011. He has been miserable. He has just 10 hits so far this season; only one, a double, even netted extra bases. He has 21 strikeouts in 73 plate appearances, and has only reached base 22 times on the strength of those 10 hits and a healthy 12 walks.
Pena’s swing has not looked bad, per se. His strike-zone judgment has occasionally eluded him for brief stints, probably a correctable result of trying to hack his way out of a funk. The biggest problems for Pena have been a ton of swings and misses, and a lot of cue shots off the end of his bat.
I propose that the problem is one of plate coverage. Pena seems to stand farther from home plate this season than he did in previous years, and he is really struggling to reach the steady stream of pitches parading by the outside corner against him in the early going.
Six of his 10 hits have come on balls from the middle of the plate inward, according to mlb.com hot zone data. One of the hits on an outside offering was Pena’s brilliant bunt single last week against an extreme defensive shift. When the ball has been inside his natural swing radius, Pena has slugged it: He ha shad the misfortune of slicing some hard line drives into the appreciative gloves of unsuspecting center- and right fielders, and has watched stricken as two or more true drives fell victim to unfriendly winds and feathered down into opponents’ mitts rather than scattering the ball hawks like ball pigeons. His luck will even out in that regard, and Pena will become dangerous again on pitches low and in.
On pitches away, though, he has looked bad more as a matter of fundamentals and swing mechanics than of fickle fate. He stands very straight all through his swing, so when a ball gets beyond his usual reach, he must lean far forward with his back only and try to slice a ball into left field. It has worked on occasion for him in the past, but as his bat slows down, Pena needs to stop using that meek adjustment to cover the outer portion of the strike zone. He could shuffle just a half-step closer to the plate and find himself able to drive the ball back up the middle of the diamond much more effectively.
Pena will always swing and miss; it is in his nature as a hitter. He has had a rocky adjustment to the National League because he is the very opposite of hitters (Starlin Castro, for instance, or Jeff Francoeur) who thrive when the league has no book on them. Pena has exploitable weaknesses at the plate, and they are relatively plain. He succeeds, over time, by adjusting more thoroughly and more intelligently than opposing pitchers, and by demonstrating excellent plate discipline.
The latter has not deserted Pena: He is seeing 4.14 pitches per plate appearances thus far, a team-best mark. Pena will make his adjustments yet and take full advantage of the coziness between the wells at Wrigley Field, where his power lies. The sooner he sidles up to the plate and dares a pitcher to push him back, though, the sooner he can shed the monkey currently clawing at his back.