As a recurring column idea, Bill will expound upon one interesting transaction that occurred on a particular day in baseball history. It won’t always be the most exciting or most impactful transaction, but always something interesting. Feel free to share which transactions stand out to you in the comments.
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In my mind, when Greg Maddux famously said, “Chicks dig the long ball” to teammate Tom Glavine in the famous 1999 Nike ad, they were inspired after having watched outfielder Wily Mo Peña take batting practice. They had actually been watching Mark McGwire — fresh off of a 70-homer season — take his cuts in the cage, but a man can dream.
On this day in 2017, March 30, the Indians released Peña from a minor league deal inked nearly two months prior. Then 35 years old, Peña hadn’t appeared in the majors since 2011, spending the ensuing five years in the Japan Pacific League. He had an unimpressive major league career, posting an adjusted OPS of 93 (100 is average) over parts of eight seasons from 2002-11. He was never an All-Star and was, on average, a poor defender. Per Baseball Reference, Peña was worth 1.2 wins below replacement for his career.
There may not be a player with less WAR that struck as much fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers as Peña did. He broke out in 2004 with the Reds, blasting 26 homers with an .843 OPS. Still, Peña found it difficult to get regular playing time aside from filling in for the oft-injured Ken Griffey Jr. While his power was unmistakable, he offered little else at the plate whether it was hitting for average or drawing walks.
When Peña would run into a pitcher’s mistake, boy did he make them pay. Just look at this grand slam he hit against the Orioles as a member of the Red Sox back in 2007:
Here’s a dinger as a Red circa 2005, back when the Astros were still in the National League:
This one is from 2011 against the Tigers as a member of the Diamondbacks:
One more, this time against the Royals from 2011:
What made Peña so fun to watch was how effortless his incredible power appeared. He was a big boy, listed at 6’3″, 260. But few players his size hit baseballs where he hit them, seemingly with ease. A simple flick of the wrist and suddenly a baseball was 475 feet away from home plate.
Peña never racked up more than 364 plate appearances in a season in the majors, so it isn’t surprising that he never made an All-Star team or even appeared in a Home Run Derby. That, to me, is one of the greater injustices in the game’s history, that Peña never got to showcase his power on a national stage. Peña seems like he was built to compete in and win Home Run Derbies.
Peña’s major league career initially fizzled out after the 2008 season with the Nationals, when he posted a .509 OPS with two homers across 64 games. He signed a minor league deal with the Mets in ’09 and the Padres in ’10 before playing for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League. Peña gave it one more shot in the big leagues in 2011 with the Diamondbacks and Mariners, but could only muster a devilish .666 OPS over 120 trips to the plate.
In 2012, Peña took his services to Japan, initially signing with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. He mashed 21 homers and posted an .829 OPS as an everyday player, stepping to the dish 507 times. He was besieged by injury in a forgettable ’13 campaign. In 2014 with the Orix Buffaloes, Peña had his best season as a professional player, batting .255/.344/.486 with 32 home runs and 90 RBI in 572 PA. While I was not able to find any highlight clips, I feel confident saying that several of those baseballs went a considerable distance. Peña would have two more productive years but age and injuries took their toll on his playing time.
The now 38-year-old hasn’t played since 2017 with the Chiba Lotte Marines after he didn’t go anywhere with the Indians. Still, if you offered me the opportunity, even now — especially now — I would happily pay to watch a lengthy Peña BP session. There’s a free business idea for you, Major League Baseball.