ST. PETERSBURG — Carlos Peña gets the new math.
An educated and deep-thinking man, Peña has learned to accept, embrace, even welcome the advanced analysis — espoused by Rays manager Joe Maddon, among others — that discounts the value of basic statistics and determines success via different metrics.
But that won't make it any easier when Peña walks to the plate tonight at Tropicana Field and looks up at the scoreboard to see his batting average: .198.
"Ooof, it's hard, my brother," Peña said. "It is so hard. It attacks your pride. It attacks your ego. So it's an incredible life lesson to grab that and put it aside and think about a greater picture and think that I play for the Tampa Bay Rays and I do not play for Carlos Peña.
"You've got to set that ego aside and set that pride aside and say, 'I only have one job to do, and that's to do everything in my power to help this ballclub win.' That's a great life lesson. And that's the attitude we all must maintain, that's the attitude we all must embrace. Because the moment you start looking at your numbers and feeling down about the fact it doesn't look sexy or pretty up on the board then, oh my goodness, you're not being fair to your teammates."
So rather than dwell on the .198 average, which, even with an 8-for-27 warming over his past eight games, is the lowest of any major-leaguer with 400 plate appearances, Maddon wants his first baseman to focus elsewhere: "I don't want him to be concerned about his batting average." (Similarly, with his 136 strikeouts that are second most in the majors.)
Statistically, for example, on his .321 on-base percentage, a product of his 61 walks, fourth most in the American League. "His on-base percentage based on his batting average is outstanding," Maddon said. "Any time a hitter exceeds his batting average by more than 100 points, that's pretty good work." (Also, his team-leading 15 homers and 46 RBIs.)
And technically, on continuing to make hard contact when he does hit the ball, knowing the increased deployment of defensive shifts — a movement which Maddon helped make more popular — routinely robs Peña, a left-handed pull hitter, of hits on grounders and line drives since there is usually an infielder plopped into short rightfield.
"When you're hitting balls hard into the shift and you're out, what does that do to you psychologically?" Maddon said. "That wears you down a little bit. When you were 16 or 17, that was a hit and now it's an out. That's different, man. It's not easy to just turn the field around at a certain juncture in life. It's defensive sophistication that has caught up to him a little bit."
Quantifying the impact of the shift is tricky, but here's a simple example: Of the 49 ground balls Peña has hit to the right side, only seven have been hits.
Maddon goes as far as suggesting the new forms of statistical measurement need to be taught to kids, and put on the back of baseball cards, so they grow up with a corrected view.
But Peña, the Rays' highest-paid position player with a $7.25 million, one-year salary, is more concerned with the present.
"Trust me, I'm not happy," he said. "I grew up watching guys and understand what a good batting average was. So where I'm at, to my knowledge, that is not a good batting average.
"And it hurts me inside. Dealing with that pain is something I think is a challenge. Not only for me, for anyone. But when you step back and you look at things objectively and you say, 'Okay, Carlos, you hit three absolute missiles into the shift the other day, two missiles the day before that,' then you're like, 'Okay, so if my hitting ability was measured on hard-hit balls, then I would be at the top of the list.'
"So objectively looking at it, I pat myself on the back and say you've done what you needed to do, which is crush the baseball. Now everything else is left up to chance."
For a 34-year-old veteran player in such a results-oriented game, that's definitely a different way of thinking.
"Objectively, I can understand that," Peña said. "Intellectually I can understand that. Get a walk, drive in a run, make a play, okay, I'm helping my team out. Objectively I can see that. Intellectually I can see that. Emotionally, it's a challenge."