Peña, who won't be 21 until next month, started last season with Low A Lexington but was pressed into service at High A Lancaster when catcher injuries in the system took their toll, and although he was starting to catch up to the High A level with his bat toward the end of the season, the Astros wanted him to really concentrate on his hitting, working with Hitting Coach Joel Chimelis in Quad Cities to start this season. So far, so good.
According to Chimelis, he has been working with Peña on making a minor adjustment and "right now he feels pretty comfortable with it." Chimelis continued, "Now he's hitting the ball and he's hitting it with some authority whereas before ... he'd get his hits, but it was soft contact. I wanted him to drive the ball and the position he was getting into wasn't allowing him to do that. So far, he feels pretty comfortable with [the adjustments] and he's seeing the ball great."
Ariel Ovando and Roberto Peña (R) - April 2013
Photo by Jayne Hansen
I spoke with Peña on Sunday about his hitting, among many other things, "I’m trying to be more balanced on my stance because I was leaning forward when I was hitting last year. I was talking to our hitting coaches, [Minor League Hitting Coordinator] Ralph [Dickenson] and Chimelis, and they put me on a plan that I can be more balanced on my stance so that’s been working a lot with me." Peña was a little disappointed to be starting the season at Low A after finishing 2012 at High A Lancaster, but he assured me, "I’ve got to still play and still play hard and do my stuff. They sent me over here to work on my hitting with Chimelis and that’s what I’m doing."
I wondered how the tandem pitching program affects the catcher. According to Peña, his preparation for games does take a bit more time, "It’s tough but we’ve got to deal with it. It’s the minor leagues. That’s our job."
Are there any pitchers on the Quad Cities staff that really stand out for one reason or another? "They’re all pretty good. I love to catch this pitching staff that we’ve got here. They throw a lot of strikes, and they throw the ball down. That’s pretty good for a catcher and for them too. If I were to name a guy, probably [Vincent] Velasquez is pretty good. He throws hard. He throws the ball down and can throw all his pitches for strikes."
I then asked him some of my random questions. On which Astros pitcher he would least like to face, Peña noted, "Probably [Nick] Tropeano. He’s filthy. He’s got a good change up, a good split, throws hard, good curveball." On who on the team makes him laugh, "Probably [Teoscar] Hernandez and [Jesse] Wierzbicki. They’re the two funniest guys on our team. [Hernandez is] quiet on the field. In the clubhouse, he’s a funny guy." On what he'd do if he couldn't play baseball, "Probably [be] an engineer. That’s what I like. I was going to go to school to study engineering."
Most people probably don't know that Peña was originally a shortstop, "I was a shortstop and when I was in Puerto Rico, [I was] getting a little big [and was told] you’ve got to move to third base or catching, but we’re going to try you at catching. And I said, 'OK, let’s go.' And I got my times [throwing to second] and my first time, my pop time to second base was 1.87 and that was my first throw, and I [thought] 'Wow!' And after, I threw a couple [at] 1.76, 1.79 and I stayed there." Which is probably why Peña has a career caught stealing percentage of 39% and is actually throwing out 67% of runners trying to steal on him this season.
Which brings us back to the core of who Roberto Peña is. He is a catcher, pure and simple, and a very good one at that. I talked to Quad Cities Pitching Coach Dave Borkowski who had this to say about Peña, "It's like throwing to a pillow back there. He's smart. He calls a great game so all you've got to do is concentrate about executing pitches. He's a lot of fun to throw to. He's energetic. I think he makes the guys focus and concentrate better when he's back there. He makes sure they're locked in and they're in the game." Chimelis added this in describing Peña, "If you don't notice a catcher, like just so quiet back there [that] you don't even know he's there, that means he's catching every ball, nothing's getting past him. That's the sign of a good catcher."
When I asked Peña to brag on himself, he told me that he tries to "call a good game, throw good, block good" adding, "If the pitcher struggles, [I] go talk to him. I’m probably average to above average with all that stuff." Borkowski would disagree with Peña's assessment of himself, "He's a very good catcher. He could probably catch in the big leagues right now."
And that brings us full circle to Peña's hitting. When I spoke with Chimelis, I theorized that Peña has what it takes to be a major leaguer and that his floor is that of a very good back-up catcher in the major leagues. But if he can hit, he can write his own ticket. Chimelis agreed that if Peña can hit .250 or .260 at every level, the sky is the limit for him and that's what they've been working on, "We're trying to put him in a position where he can have success at the higher levels, where it doesn't matter where he hits, he could compete and have some success." .371/.412/.532 ... so far, so good.
Thanks to Roberto Peña, Joel Chimelis and Dave Borkowski for taking the time to speak with me. And the best of luck to Peña as the season unfolds.