I’d be excited if they had signed this guy and had access to a time machine. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
The White Sox didn’t just add Matt Lindstrom this week, they also inked Tony Pena Jr. to a minor league deal. Tony Pena Jr. may not be good, but he is absolutely entertaining. Pena — from here on out “TPJ” — began his major league career as a shortstop with the Kansas City Royals. He could actually field the position quite well, had good speed, and a big arm, so he really didn’t have to hit much to be a worthwhile piece on a major league roster. TPJ, however, had other ideas. TPJ decided to bend the fabric of the OPS+ statistic.
OPS+ puts your OPS on a scale with 100 as league average, with an adjustment for the park you play in — every point higher than 100 (101, 102, etc.) and your OPS is 1% better than league average. The lower you go, you are that many percentage points worse. In 2007, with pretty much a full season of at bats, TPJ hit .267/.284/.356, good for an OPS+ of 68. Slick fielding shortstops don’t need to hit much, but they have to do better than that. Still, the Royals weren’t exactly being held back from the playoffs by Mr. Pena, Jr. and they could afford to give him another shot. So they did.
In 2008, TPJ had an OPS+ of 7. Just 7. 235 plate appearances – roughly 40% of a full season – and he hit .169/.189/.209. I remember that season – I remember that moment, because I didn’t know a single-digit OPS+ was realistically possible with that many plate appearances. Brent Morel is the White Sox example of hideous failure and even he doubled up TPJ this year with an OPS+ of 15. Adam Dunn‘s nightmare 2011 boasted an OBP a full 100 points higher than TPJ’s 2008. But TPJ was not satisfied. TPJ, comfortably ahead of the pack, was still going to blast into another gear, full throttle into unexplored regions of bad hitting. My visual analogy would be that moment where Vin Diesel in one of those Fast and the Furious movies hits the big red button on his gear shift that magically makes the car super fast.
In 2009, TPJ was back again, and he was better than ever. Though his opus only got 53 plate appearances he posted an OPS+ of -32. That’s a minus sign! I’m not even sure how to conceptualize this. 2009 TPJ hit 132% worse than league average. TPJ would be a pioneer and a hero if our story stopped here, but he keeps getting funnier.
On July 21, 2008, with the Tigers crushing the Royals 19-4, Trey Hillman just said, “Yeah, whatever – let’s have TPJ pitch.” TPJ came in, and as always when a position player is pitching, it was treated by the announcers and onlookers as a bit of a joke. Except TPJ fired fastballs in at 90-91, and quickly induced a weak grounder from Ryan Raburn to the third base side of the mound — the able shortstop fielded it and got his first out. Next up was Ivan Rodriguez. The announcers chortled as TPJ actually threw him a curveball that looked kind of decent. A few pitches later, Pudge struck out looking on one of those curves. Edgar Renteria would then fly out giving Tony Pena Jr. a 1-2-3 inning.
The lesson was clearly not lost on Mr. Pena Jr., as he converted to pitching. He quickly dominated the lower minors and pitched his way up to AAA where he hit a wall. Kansas City gave up, as did San Francisco and Boston. It looks like he’s just not good enough, and Tony Pena Jr. will almost certainly not see any time in the majors for the White Sox this year — unless something goes horribly wrong (or Robin Ventura wants him to do his best Ray Olmedo impression, which I suppose counts as something going horribly wrong).
Still, unlike many moves of this ilk where it’s just filling out AAA and I shrug, this signing made me smile and remember Ivan Rodriguez: Caught Looking.