Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Card #138: Tony Pena

Who Can It Be Now?
Antonio Francesco (Padilla) Pena was born on June 4, 1957, in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic. The almost-always excellent Joe Posnanski wrote a fantastic long-form story back in 2003 for the Kansas City Star recounting Pena's youth in the Dominican. Pena grew up in a poor neighborhood (Palo Verde), the son of Octaviano and Rosalia. His father worked 14-hour days to raise his family, and his mother taught school. His mother also taught Tony and his three brothers how to play baseball, as she had played softball herself as a youth.

In the last years before the Dominican academies -- which really started in the early 1980s after teams recognized the amount of (often cheaper) talent available on the island in the wake of the Latin baseball boom of the 1960s (Juan Marichal, the Alous, Manny Mota, and Julian Javier, to name just a few) , players being signed was hit or miss -- some great players probably got overlooked.  

Pena, though, was lucky: a scout from the Pittsburgh Pirates saw Pena playing among a group of fifty or so youths and thought he had promise. The scout, credited as Howie Haak on The Baseball Cube, came to Pena's parents' house to sign him, and surprisingly met resistance from Pena's mother. As Posnanski put it, "[s]he didn't consider baseball a career option for Tony. . . . Tony Pena's life was already laid out. His future wife, Amaris, lived three houses down. He was strong enough to work in the banana fields. He would have children and live his life in Palo Verde."

Eventually, though, Tony promised that he would come home in a year if he did not make it. So, Rosalia finally gave in and allowed Pena to sign. It did not go very well in that first year in the minors in 1976, however, as Pena struggled with hitting, hitting for power, and with getting on base. Granted, it was in a 47-game season, but with a slash line of .214/.260/.302 combined over two leagues (both of which hit far better than that and neither of which was that far away from Pena's age), it did not look good.

But the Pirates hung with Pena through 1977 and 1978. In both of those years, again, he struggled to hit and struggled with getting on base. I mean, even though in 1978 he was two years younger than the rest of the Texas League, he was still well below the rest of the league and the rest of his team in AVG, OBP, and SLG. As Posnanski's story tells it, Pena was told prior to his 1978 offseason that he needed to convince the Pirates he could play baseball. Now, Posnanski makes it sound like this was a Dominican epidemic -- not being able to "convince" the major league team that the players could play -- but looking at the stat line makes it pretty clear that the convincing would come with better results and not any sooner. 

As much as teams like high draft picks, there is a meritocratic side to player development. 

Pena took the words about showing something to the Pirates to heart. He ran the stairs at a church every day to build stamina. He swung a heavy bat to develop strength.  And, he developed his signature extended-leg crouch behind the plate. That crouch allowed him to give pitchers a lower target while still allowing Pena to throw out runners trying to steal.

It also didn't hurt that Pena was assigned to Buffalo in the Eastern League in 1979. At that time, the stadium in Buffalo had a short porch in right field, and Pena practiced directing fly balls to that short porch. It worked. He hit an entirely uncharacteristic thirty-four homers that season (he would never again hit more than 15 as a player and finished with 107 over his entire 18-season career) and started hitting for average as well. That led to being promoted to Triple-A Portland in 1980, where he against hit well and used the larger dimensions in the ballpark to run out 13 triples. 

After his strong 1980 Triple-A season, Pena was given a cup-of-coffee in 1980 with the Pirates. He never played in the minors again except for a two-game rehab assignment in 1987. 

In 1981, Pena made the Pirates out of spring training. As a rookie, all the usual questions about how he would perform and react to being in the major leagues were raised. To ease his transition, the Pirates had Pena splitting time with the slightly older veteran of four years, Steve Nicosia. While Pena did not walk much -- 8 times in 223 plate appearances -- he had a good AVG (.300). More importantly, Pena showed that he had great ability behind the plate to call games and throw out runners. Despite playing in just 64 games behind the plate out of 102 total, he finished third in the NL with 10 DP turned at catcher and third in caught stealing percentage with 42.6%.

Coming in to 1982, then, expectations for Pena were high. Local Pittsburgh journalists called Pena a "Rising Star" and made comparisons between Pena and the great Johnny Bench and Gary Carter. Indeed, Pena was named to the first of his five All-Star games in 1982 and, once again, hit fairly well (.296/.323/.435) but, as that slash line shows, Pena had very little plate patience. The old saw that "Dominicans don't walk off the island" certainly applied to Pena.

But to point that out in this context is a bit churlish. Pena's value as a catcher came more from his defense than his offense. In 1983, Pena won the first of four consecutive Gold Gloves in the National League (he would win one more in the American League in 1991). Indeed, in 1984, Tony Pena led all National League players (not just catchers) with 2.5 Defensive WAR

And yet, as Pena matured into a Gold Glover, the Pirates around him started boring downward in the National League East. After consecutive 84-78 seasons in 1982 and 1983 (the second of which was good enough for second place), the Pirates finished last in 1984, 1985, and 1986. 

Perhaps as a result of that terrible run or perhaps in an effort to signal to their young stars Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds that they were now the team's leaders, the Pirates traded Pena away on the eve of the 1987 season, sending him to division rival St. Louis in exchange for three players: pitcher Mike Dunne, catcher Mike LaValliere, and centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. As the excellent Cardinals history blog Retro Simba points out, the trade was considered to be incredibly lopsided in the Cardinals favor at the time. The Pittsburgh press hated the trade. Syd Thrift, the GM, was quoted as saying, "How am I going to explain to my 82-year-old mother when the fans boo me?"

In the end, the Cardinals made the World Series where they lost to the Minnesota Twins in 7 games. Pena hit extremely well that year in the postseason (17-for-43 with 6 walks), but it wasn't enough to overcome the Homer Hankies in the Metrodome.  

Still, the Pirates probably won the trade thanks to how well Spanky and Van Slyke played over the next 5 to 7 years while Pena left St. Louis after three seasons in which he totaled 19 HR, 132 RBI, and a .248/.303/.342 line in 1435 plate appearances (an OPS+ of just 79).

In 1990, Pena went to the American League by signing with the Boston Red Sox.  Pena again found himself in the post-season, and again found himself on the losing end of a playoff series when the Oakland A's beat the Red Sox in the ALCS. The end of Pena's Boston career in 1993 was also the end of his time as a starting catcher.  Yet, Pena was not done as a player. He signed on with the Cleveland Indians at the age of 37 in 1994, serving as Sandy Alomar's backup. That led to two more seasons in which Pena went to the postseason only to lose -- against the Braves in 1995 in the World Series and against the Orioles in 1996 in the ALDS.

After the 1996 season, Pena signed on with the Chicago White Sox. Now 40, he played sparingly as the third catcher behind Jorge Fabregas and Ron Karkovice. As the season progressed, the White Sox were scuffling along near .500, so they decided to give Pena one last shot at the postseason with the Astros. Pena played in just 6 regular season games in Houston after being traded there in August of 1997 to back up both Brad Ausmus and Tony Eusebio. And, as happened in all of his other postseason appearances, he ended his 1997 season -- and his playing career -- with a loss after the Astros lost in the NLDS to the Atlanta Braves.

Mustache Check: Tony Pena definitely has a mustache. Still has one today too.

Family Ties
Most baseball fans of recent vintage are aware that Tony's son Tony Pena, Jr. played shortstop for the Atlanta Braves and also the Kansas City Royals from 2006 to 2009. Another son, Francisco, made it to the major leagues in May of 2014, finishing out a 7-6 loss against the Chicago White Sox on May 20. Francisco had spent most of his career in the New York Mets organization before moving over to Kansas City before 2014.

Tony's younger brother Ramon also played in the major leagues, making 8 appearances for the Detroit Tigers in 1989 and getting lit up like a Roman candle (6.00 ERA, 13 runs/12 ER in 18 innings). In addition, Tony's nephew Rudy Pena made it to Double-A Altoona for 1 game in 2004 in the Pittsburgh organization.

Finally, Tony's daughter Jennifer Amaris is also a competitor of sorts: she is a self-described bikini competitor. Here's a photo of her with her father from October.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
In 1982, I knew who Tony Pena was because the baseball card world was chasing his 1981 Topps Rookie card. To a 10-year-old kid who did not pay attention to stats quite yet (that took until my teens, when I discovered the Bill James Baseball Abstracts), I bought into the "Tony Pena is the next Johnny Bench" hype. 

Also, I was a catcher in little league and found that Pena's catching style was a hell of a lot easier on my knees than the old-school crouch. So, I really did like Pena as a player. 

It's not difficult to find what Tony Pena has been up to since he retired as an active player after the 1997 season. He immediately became a minor league manager -- first in the White Sox system, and then in the Astros system. Then, in 2002, he spent part of the season as the Astros bench coach before being named as the Kansas City Royals manager on May 15 in the wake of the Royals' firing of Tony Muser.  

Pena and the Royals surprised baseball in 2003 by posting a winning record -- 83-79. That earned him the award as the American League Manager of the Year. The Royals handled their above-.500 season about as well as you would expect for them ten years ago, however, and flopped to a 58-104 record in 2004. After an 8-25 start to the 2005 season, Pena resigned, saying that he felt that at the time the team had not "played to the top of our abilities." He added (in a team press release) that "The Kansas City Royals are on the right track by committing to their young players, and I believe the Royals will be contenders for a long time if they don't change their direction."

Perhaps he meant, "the Royals will not be contenders for a long time" but Pena left with more class than I might have had.

After his resignation, Pena joined the New York Yankees organization in 2006. He served for three years as the team's first base coach before becoming the team's bench coach in 2009. He served in that position through the 2014 season.

And damn, his daughter is hot.

1 comment:

  1. It was fun reading all the comments about the Pena/Van Slyke trade. I think "experts" would have been a lot more receptive today if that trade was made. Van Slyke was a young centerfielder coming into his prime and Spanky was a defense first catcher. Fangraphs would have loved it for the Pirates! Back then it was all about name value and Pena had it.