For Rays' Pena, sometimes a slow start is just a slow start

Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, during a game last month, is fighting through frustration at the plate.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, during a game last month, is fighting through frustration at the plate.

For now, it is just a slow start. Nothing more and nothing less.

Carlos Pena is just another hitter in need of a few more line drives.

Maybe when you're a kid, 10 strikeouts in 12 at-bats would be a sign to lace up those soccer cleats in the back of the closet. But, for a big-league first baseman coming off a 46-homer season, it's just a bad week at the office.

Or you could look at it this way. Arizona's Brandon Webb is 8-0, but it's still May so no one is talking about him winning 30 games or more. Atlanta's Chipper Jones is hitting .419, but it's still May so no one is checking Ted Williams' freezer for comment.

And Pena is hovering near the Mendoza Line and leading the American League in strikeouts, but it's still May so no one is saying 2007 was a fluke for the Rays slugger.

At least, not yet.

The trick is figuring out where a slump ends and a problem begins. If six weeks into a season is not the time to panic, does that mean eight weeks is the right time to get nervous? Ten weeks? Twelve weeks?

Does Thursday night's opposite-field home run mean all is suddenly well?

"Slumps are kind of a nebulous issue because it's hard to separate the mental and physical parts at times," said Gerry Hunsicker, Rays senior VP of baseball operations. "The physical part is easier to see because you can use mechanical issues to evaluate what a hitter might be doing at the plate, but that's not always accurate.

"Part of the problem is you're also dealing with a hitter's psyche. If a hitter decides a slump is a problem, he starts to lose confidence and then everything begins to snowball. It's a good question, and I'm not sure there's a right answer. I've been around a lot of good hitters who have gone through this for weeks, and even months, where they're not swinging well but, eventually, they do come out of it."

The point is every hitter, and every situation, is unique. And the longer a player's resume, the longer you are inclined to wait for him to come out of a particular slump.

That's what makes Pena's case so fascinating. On the one hand, he was one of the most feared hitters in the AL last season. That should give you some comfort. On the other hand, he was considered expendable by five teams between 2002-06. That should give you pause.

Rays manager Joe Maddon will tell you Pena was swinging the bat better than ever in the dozen or so games before this week began. And he did pick up his average from .179 to .215 between April 17 and May 4.

But it's also true he has just two home runs in his past 22 games and has an abysmal 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

So is there something specific Pena is, or is not, doing? The theory is it has had nothing to do with his swing and more to do with his approach. Statistically he is seeing just as many pitches per at-bat as last season, but there is still a sense that he has become more impatient.

The problem is his choices at the plate. Pena has been taking pitches he would normally crush and has been chasing bad pitches. It's almost as if he has lost his rhythm and is guessing wrong on fastballs and breaking pitches.

None of that sounds insurmountable, but try telling that to a hitter who is seeing 94-mph fastballs and biting sliders night after night.

"Sometimes you might be concerned after 10 days. With him, I really believe by the end of the season his numbers are going to be very comparable to what he did last year," Maddon told Times reporter Marc Topkin before Thursday's game in Toronto. "It's just a moment right now, and we just have to help him through it.

"It comes down to that one simple premise with him — when he does not expand the strike zone. And that's all I'm looking for right now, to keep the strike zone in order."

The problem is not unique to Pena. Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder both finished in the top five of the National League MVP race last season. Yet Howard is now hitting .165 with six homers and Fielder is at .248 with four homers. Cleveland DH Travis Hafner, after four consecutive 100 RBI seasons, is hitting .209 with three homers.

For Pena, the best clue that he is coming out of the slump will be when he starts getting ahead in the count and begins drawing more walks. The home runs and base hits will naturally follow.

"The one thing we're supremely confident in is that Carlos Pena is going to hit," Rays executive VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "Carlos is a very analytical person. The one thing Joe has really stressed is to focus on the process. Focus on his swing and mechanics in batting practice, and when the game starts, just let his abilities take over."

It is premature to call Pena's 2007 season an aberration, but it's also unrealistic to expect another season where he finishes right behind Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz in combined slugging/on-base percentage. Should you anticipate another 46 homers? No, but 36 is not a stretch. Should you expect him to hit .282 again? No, but a .250 average with a .390 on-base percentage is reasonable.

Look, this offseason did not turn Pena into a bad hitter.

He has just been a player in a slump.

Chances are, it won't last.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

For Rays' Pena, sometimes a slow start is just a slow start 05/08/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 11, 2008 9:52am]

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