Wily Mo Pena: Power, Lottery Tickets and Scouting


The announcement that the Cleveland Indians signed Wily Mo Pena had many scurrying to Baseball Reference to verify that their memories were correct on him last playing a full season of MLB in 2007. The Wily Mo Pena signing is perhaps the strangest in the past decade for the Tribe. It is also revealing of the nature of Spring Training and the pursuit of inefficiency in the marketplace.

Pena signed a minor league invite with a contract that reaches $700k if he reaches the Major Leagues. Pena spent 2012-2015 crushing baseballs on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. More surprising, he spent 2016 out of competitive baseball. The instant reaction is to compare this signing to that of Scott Kazmir because of Kazmir’s brief experience in independant league baseball and disappearance from the competitive scene.

The similarities between Kazmir and Pena end there. When the Indians signed Kazmir, he was still just 29 years old and had begun to rebuild the mechanics that had made him so productive early in his career. Pena is nearly 36 and hasn’t had a productive MLB season in a decade. It is strange to even consider Pena a lottery ticket. Perhaps, due to his relationship with Edwin Encarnacion, this is merely the signing of a friend to soften the slugger’s transition to Cleveland.

With Jesus Aguilar and Richie Schaffer both being designated for assignment, the Indians lack any sort of depth at first base. An experienced bat like Pena brings a little depth. It is hard to forget the monstrous power that Pena flashed throughout his big league career.

When Rosenthal discussed how the Indians happened upon inking Pena to a deal the situation became much more interesting.

Pena is a workout partner of Encarncion. A small workout in the Dominican Republic is a somewhat unique basis for a minor league signing. This is where we get to talk for a moment about scouting, Moneyball, and the principles of sabermetrics. The movie depiction and certain interpretations of the book can lead one to believe that Moneyball was the insertion of data analysis in the place of scouting. This view isincorrect. The lesson is about achieving a more complete collection of information. At the heart of Moneyball is the notion that informed decision making is the bedrock of a successful organization. Which is to say, gathering information from other players and scouting small workouts is  a “Moneyball” approach.

The Pena signing is sort of compelling as the Indians are once again attempting to leverage an informational advantage in order to find value. This is the nature of modern baseball. Too often we apply analytic or “Moneyball” concepts when considering larger organizational moves but forget that the moves are made with great precision and purpose. This does not mean that they will always be successful, but the level of analysis applied to simple minor league signings is in many ways staggering.