The Curse of the American League

Carlos Pena
Image by Keith Allison via Flickr

At this point, we have to begin to discuss the possibility of an official curse – for the third time in four years one of the American League’s elite homerun hitters has suffered a season ending injury in September, and for the second year in a row it may cost the American League a 40-homerun hitter. On Monday, Carlos Pena broke two fingers after being hit by a C.C. Sabathia pitch against the Yankees. Pena currently leads the AL in homerun with 39, ahead of current AL RBI leader Mark Teixeira’s 35 and several players at 31, but is now done for the season.

Last season, Carlos Quentin led the AL in homeruns with 36 and had essentially locked up the AL Most Valuable Player Award going into September when he broke his wrist after slamming his bat in frustration on September 5th. He ended up second in the league with 36 homeruns behind Miguel Cabreras’ 37.

In 2006, Travis Hafner – who came up through the Rangers farm system with Pena, and who with Pena was made expendable by the emergence of Teixeira – was dominating the American League with 42 homeruns, 117 RBI, 100 walks, and a league leading 1.097 OPS and 179 OPS+ when his season was ended on September 1st when he was plunked by C.J. Wilson of the Rangers.

One is also reminded of Sammy Sosa’s first elite-power season, in 1996, when he had 40 homeruns and 100 RBI through August 20th, but had his wrist broken when he was hit by a pitch against the Marlins. He finished fifth in the NL in homeruns behind Andres Galarraga’s 47, and almost certainly would have led the league if not for the injury; Galarraga hit 13 homeruns from the date of Sosa’s injury through the end of the season. Interestingly, both the Sosa and Hafner HBP’s came with the bases loaded and drove in a run.

Sadly, unlike Hafner, Quentin and Sosa, this injury will likely cost Pena three different crowns. Not only does he currently lead the American League in homeruns, but he also leads the league in walks (87) and strikeouts (163). The AL bases on balls race is very tight, with Chone Figgans tied with Pena and Nick Swisher one walk behind him, while Jack Cust (152) and Russ Branyan (149) are more than capable of catching Pena in the strikeouts department.

Looking at the careers of Sosa, Hafner, and Quenton, one wonders what’s next for Carlos Pena. For Sosa, Hafner, and Quentin, these injuries radically changed their careers, and one must wonder whether the same will be said for Pena.

Sosa, of course, would go on to struggle through the 1997 season, and the narrative of that year is that the wrist injury lingered, plaguing his season. Of course, 1998 would be the year that Sosa and Mark McGwire would change baseball forever, and it is possible that Sosa’s 1997 troubles led to his alleged usage of performance enhancing drugs before the 1998 season; it has often been alleged that players begin using performance enhancers in response to injuries, so it makes sense. If so, then one HBP in 1996 changed the course of baseball history.

Hafner and Quentin, meanwhile, have not been the same players since their season-ending injuries. Quentin has been terrible in 2009 (16 homeruns, .235 average, .769 OPS) after what looked to be a breakout 2008 season, and Travis Hafner went from being one of the best hitters in baseball to enduring a solid, but comparatively lousy, 2007 and injury-plagued 2008 and 2009 seasons.

The good news for Pena is that his injury is to his fingers and not his wrist – the number of players to rebound slowly from broken wrists is too many to count, but includes Sosa, Quentin, Hafner, Vernon Wells, Derrek Lee, Hideki Matsui, Ken Griffey, Jr., among others – and comes at the end of the year, so he should have plenty of time to recover before Spring Training 2010.

On the other hand, Pena, like Hafner, has never been the model of consistency and durability, and has given the impression of someone playing on borrowed time during his big-power-low-average stint with the Rays. Whether this marks the end of Pena’s brief period as a full time major league contributor, like Hafner, remains to be seen.

On another note, it is impossible not to notice the convenient way in which this injury occurred. Pena, teammate Evan Longoria, and Mark Teixiera are currently locked in battles for the homerun and RBI titles; Pena currently leads Teixeira in homeruns by four, and Teixeira leads the RBI race with 106 ahead of Longoria (102) and Pena (100). Obviously, Pena won’t be garnering any more RBI, and with Pena done for the year the RBI opportunities for Longoria likely decrease as well. So, Sabathia’s sniping of the American League homerun leader essentially paves the way for Mark Teixeira to lead the league in both homeruns and RBI, which make Teixeira the front-runner for the AL Most Valuable Player Award. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Award could go to anyone other than a player who leads the AL in homeruns and RBI in his first season with the New York Yankees in the year that the team led the AL in wins after missing the playoffs the previous year. Sorry, Joe Mauer and Derek Jeter.

It is all just a little too convenient.

As to Pena’s recovery, I won’t make any predictions. I am, after all, the one who said we’d seen the last of Derrek Lee, who currently has 32 homeruns, a .298 average, and a .954 OPS.

And as to the AL MVP, well, let’s just hand it to Mr. Teixeira now. Unless, of course, he has some frustration-related bat-slamming in his future.

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