Yesterday, Sean Burroughs made his first MLB appearance in over five years, and people were understandably excited by the event. I mean, when you fall off the face of the Earth only to return and quickly rise to prominence once again, people are going to take notice.
Burroughs was once regarded as one of the best prospects in baseball and had a couple of nice seasons for himself back in 2001 and 2002, but his power never developed and he couldn't make the hollow batting averages last. He left the game for a few years, but this spring he decided to make a comeback and signed a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks (who are ran by the GM that drafted Burroughs back in the day, Kevin Towers). The rest of the story is pretty predictable: he showed up this spring and hit so well for Triple-A Reno that they brought up the 30-year-old earlier this week.
It's pretty much a perfect made-for-TV story, right? But then I wondered, "Would the main character in our plot really have a teammate that's younger, better and had a similar fall from prominence? Shouldn't the story be about him, then?" Because the funny thing is that Sean Burroughs wasn't even the best hitter on his team this spring; and what's even funnier is that he's being outperformed by another former top prospect of all people.
When Pena joined the Diamondbacks this spring, his signing got a bit more fanfare than the signing of Burroughs did. That shouldn't be surprising, given that Pena is nearly two years younger than Burroughs and hasn't spent significant time away from the game. But their was a genuine buzz around the former Reds slugger when he joined Reno this spring. Aces manager Brett Butler mentioned of Pena that, "I have never in my 25 years in baseball seen a guy consistently hit the ball as hard as he does."
And that's something that was always expected of Pena. When he was just 16, he signed a Major League contract with the Yankees out of the Dominican Republic. He was just 20 when he made his debut as a Cincinnati Red in 2002. And in his age-22 and age-23 seasons for the Reds in 2003 and 2004, he hit 45 home runs over the course of 699 plate appearances. Going into the 2005 season, Pena looked like he was developing into one of the game's elite power hitters.
But strikeouts were always a major issue for Pena, and that doubt led the Reds to trade him before the 2005 season to the Red Sox in exchange for Bronson Arroyo. And even though Pena actually turned in a solid BABIP-fueled .301/.349/.489 in 84 games with Boston that season, his numbers would drop the next season along with his average on balls in play.
The next few seasons would be rough for Pena. Boston traded him to Washington near the end of the 2007 season, and the Nationals let him return for the 2008 season after he appeared to get himself back together in his initial stint with the team. That was pretty much the last high point of Pena's career up until now. After the Nationals waived Pena in 2008, he spent the beginning of the 2009 season in the Mets organization and the end of it with the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League, and 2010 was spent with the Padres' Triple-A affiliate.
But through all of that, Pena could still destroy baseballs. He could still put up some serious shows in batting practice. And he was still intriguing enough that the Diamondbacks decided to bring him in. So far, that decision is looking like it could prove to be genius in the end.
Off to a blazing start, Pena has established himself in the middle of Reno's batting order. His line currently sits at a ridiculous .377/.446/.769, and his BABIP isn't even that high at .380. He's showing incredible power, with 7 doubles, 1 triple and 14 homers in 148 PA's so far; his isolated power is hovering near .400, currently sitting at .392. And arguably as exciting as the power numbers are the strikeouts, or lack thereof. After striking out in 28% of his PA's last season, he's currently striking out in only 17% of his PA's this season. Even for a guy whose isolated power is higher than his BABIP, this kind of improvement in making contact is huge.
Compare those numbers to Burroughs, who posted a .384/.434/.571 line for Reno before getting called up. Although Burroughs is walking at a similar clip and striking out significantly less, how can one ignore that Pena's isolated power is more than double Burroughs' current figure? Or the fact that Pena already has 14 homers this season, and Burroughs never hit more than 9 in a single year? Or the fact that Burroughs' BABIP is 33 points higher than Pena's, but his batting average is only 7 points higher?
This isn't to say that we shouldn't be applauding Burroughs for his impressive return. What he's done is incredibly impressive. But frankly, it's not remotely as impressive as what Pena is doing. Burroughs' biggest issue before was always a lack of power, and as he's shown so far this season, that's still going to be the problem. Pena, on the other hand, has always had issues making contact, but this season he appears to be making legitimate strides in improving that skill. And just as importantly, that improvement hasn't come at the expense of his special power. Burroughs is getting more attention right now because of his recent call-up, but I wouldn't be surprised if Pena ends up turning more heads in the end.
For all of the hype that Sean Burroughs has gotten early in this season, I'd argue that he hasn't been the most impressive former prospect on the Reno Aces so far this season. That would be one Wily Mo Pena.