The first time I saw Brayan Pena in a Detroit Tigers uniform was in spring training this year. I remember being on the lookout for him, having never really paid any attention to him during his Kansas City days. When I spotted number 55 walking past the first base side with his new teammates before the game started, I remember thinking, “My gosh, someone squished Prince Fielder down two precious inches that he didn’t have.”
Pena is, to be polite, rotund, so needless to say my expectations for him were sub-par.
Yet a strange thing happened from then to now: Pena has been performing very well, especially in contrast to Alex Avila’s nightmare of a season thus far.
In limited appearances (20 games, 80 at bats) Pena has socked two home runs, driven in 10, and has the highest ISO (.120) he’s posted since his 2009 season. His walk rate is 3.8%, which isn’t great, but his wOBA sits at .328 and his WAR is 0.3. Granted, Avila still has a higher walk rate and ISO, but his wOBA is .252 and his WAR is -0.3.
A case could be made for bad luck between the two. Pena’s BABIP is a robust .323, while Avila’s is mired at .252.Also, in defensive comparisons, “Small Sample Size” is the phrase de jour – Avila has participated in 14 wild pitches and has caught 7 of 35 base thieves, while Pena has been in 5 wild pitches and has caught 6 of 20.
However, this isn’t to compare the two (which isn’t fair this season because Avila has been, again, politely put, stank), but to illuminate how well Pena has been playing.
When presented with the opportunity to play more in May, Pena posted an OPS of .893, and has been destroying right-handed pitchers to the tune of a 1.054 OPS. He’s been playing solid defense, makes the most of his offensive opportunities, and seems to be an enjoyable teammate in the clubhouse.
And one has to give Pena credit for his adjustment to the Detroit pitching staff. He came in cold, having only faced these guys in limited appearances over the last couple seasons, but he put in the work and has developed a good synergy with the starters, including being the receiver of Anibal Sanchez’s 17-strikeout gem.
With his performance this season, coupled with Avila’s immense struggles, Pena has made a case to be the temporary starter in Motown. The only things standing in his way are Jim Leyland’s unwavering loyalty and infatuation with players’ confidence, with the Skipper sticking with Avila no matter what, trying to give him a boost of the latter due to the former. Pena has proved himself to at least be the starter while Avila works his issues out, which could definitely give the team a boost in both the short and long term.