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Sox take stock of Wily Mo Pena HR Derby Campaign

07.05.11 at 7:56 pm ET
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Wily Mo Pena, back in the majors for the first time since 2008, has hit five homers in 39 ABs. (AP)

David Ortiz is in a unique position. He is the captain of the American League’s Home Run Derby squad, in charge of selecting the AL representatives who will join him in Phoenix during the All-Star festivities next week. He is also a former teammate of Diamondbacks slugger Wily Mo Pena, a unique power-hitting menace who is capable of hitting the ball farther than just about anyone in the sport.

Apprised of the grassroots campaign to get the NL to add Pena to the Home Run Derby (which, for the first time this year, is not limited to All-Star participants), Ortiz made his feelings clear.

“That’s not good,” Ortiz said of the idea of having Pena among the NL’s lineup of batting practice bashers. “We would lose right away.”

The decision was not Ortiz’ to make. Instead, it belonged to Brewers slugger Prince Fielder, who won the 2009 Home Run Derby in St. Louis. Fielder passed on Pena, instead selecting Brewers teammate Rickie Weeks, Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp and Cardinals slugger Matt Holliday.

So, the grassroots #wilymo4derby campaign on twitter did not achieve its goal. Still, the Sox are in unique position to assess the possible theater that Pena could have brought to the Derby setting.

Pena, of course, was acquired from the Reds by the Red Sox in exchange for Bronson Arroyo in spring training of 2006. During his time in Boston, he showed prodigious raw power that did not translate with any consistency to games. He hit .271 with a .328 OBP, .451 slugging mark and .779 OPS, along with 16 homers, in 157 games.

Still, the Wily Mo Show that transpired against batting practice fastballs was, for those Red Sox who played with him in 2006 and 2007 (before he was traded in a three-team deal that netted the Sox Chris Carter), unforgettable.

Kevin Youkilis smirked when asked about Pena’s batting practice sessions.

“Don’t ever be at third base when he’s hitting. His ball comes off the bat like no other,” said Youkilis. “There are certain guys in the league you just don’t even try to take groundballs when they’re hitting. He was one of them. There was no chance.”

The furthest Youkilis ever saw Pena hit a ball?

“In BP in Toronto, he hit it two-thirds up the scoreboard. I think most guys in this clubhouse will tell you that’s the farthest they’ve seen a ball hit.

“In a game, it didn’t go that far, but it was off [Orioles pitcher] Chris Ray, that grand slam that went into the bullpen [at Camden Yards]. The wind was blowing in that day. No one could hit one out. That one was the most impressive. And that one here – it wasn’t the farthest, but it was the quickest I’ve ever seen a ball get out. The ball [hit off the Monster Seats and] came back to, like, shortstop. That was the hardest hit ball I’ve ever seen.”

Pena was out of the majors in 2009 and 2010. He played in the independent Atlantic League at the start of last year, hoping to convince an organization to take a shot on him. He signed with the Padres, hitting .324 with a .390 OBP, .946 OPS and nine homers in 40 Triple-A contests.

This past offseason, the Diamondbacks signed the 29-year-old to a minor league deal, and Pena — hoping to return to the majors for the first time in three years — accepted, turning down seven-figure offers to play in Japan. He assaulted the baseball in the Pacific Coast League, hitting .363 with a .439 OBP, .726 slugging mark, 1.165 OPS and a staggering 21 homers in 63 games.

That, in turn, led the Diamondbacks to call him up to serve as a DH in interleague play. His impact was immediate. Though 8-for-39, five of his hits have been homers for Arizona, and so he has remained in the majors beyond the expiration of the interleague schedule.

His homers have once again become the stuff of legend. They have traveled an average of 425 feet, with a pair of his bashes measuring in excess of 450 foot blasts.

He is not an All-Star, but Pena undoubtedly would have made a fascinating addition to the All-Star event, which could have offered a perfect forum for power that deserves the title of freakish.

“What would it be like? It would be a lot of fun. I think people will see balls hit where they never thought they could be,” said Pena’s agent, Josh Zeide. “I think he’s trying to not get overly caught up in it. He realizes what he’s got to do from a work perspective and his job is to go out there and help the team win. In terms of Home Run Derby this year or not, he’s not too worried. If it happens, it happens. But he’s not really concerned.”

That is because Pena has bigger things on his agenda, most prominently, proving anew that he is a player who deserves a fixed residence in the majors. On that front, the jury remains out, as Pena — always vulnerable to strikeouts on breaking pitches — has punched out 17 times in 39 at-bats, and has yet to draw a walk.

“The reality is everyone knows he can hit home runs, and to this point having struck out 17 times without a walk is not the ratio that he’s looking for and not what he wants to accomplish,” said Zeide. “The Triple-A line is more in line with what we’re trying to accomplish in terms of his approach, his walks-strikeouts ratio, his average and everything else. It’s really about him being a complete player and having a proper approach and going out and being patient, waiting on his pitches and making solid contact and certainly cutting down on his strikeouts. He has not shown you that in his first 39 ABs but he has shown you his power.”

And that, in turn, is why he seemed such a fascinating curiosity as a potential player to take part in the All-Star event.

“Why not get the guys like Wily who can hit homers?” he mused. “I actually think it would be a good idea if the Home Run Derby was done by non-All-Stars, like a Russell Branyan. I think you’d get the guys who have the most power in the league who can put on the home run displays.”

Perhaps at another time…

Read More: #wilymo4derby, David Ortiz, Home Run Derby, Prince Fielder
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