Cliff Pennington is one of the few A's whose at bats make me feel hopeful (Daric Barton and Ryan Sweeney being the others). His .263/.342/.424 line makes him the best option in the leadoff spot. As recently as two years ago, however, Pennington looked to be a bust and there was no indication that he would be the A's every day shortstop, let alone of the their best hitters.
CHONE, as well as most other projection systems saw Pennington's two strong months in the majors last year as a fluke, but so far, he's improved virtually every aspect of his game. Are his improvements "for reals" or has he lucked his way through his first 125 major league games?
(Please excuse the headline. Adam and I played basketball with this kid in high school who constantly used the phrase "for reals." Even now, more than 10 years later, it seems wrong whenever I hear the word "real" following the word "for" without the extra "s." Perhaps in the future, "for reals" will officially replace "for real" the same way that "aks" will replace "ask.")
Pennington was drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft out of Texas A&M. At the time there was a concern that the A's front office had put too much stock into Pennington's college statistics, especially his walk totals. Pennington did nothing (with the bat at least) to quiet those concerns in his first few minor league seasons. In 2006, his first full professional season, he hit .203/.302/.277 in 46 games in the California League (he was injured the rest of the season). He split his 2007 season between A ball and AA and hit a combined .253/.346/.368. 2008 was another uneven offensive year for Pennington; he rediscovered his ability to take a ton of walks, but his ability to do anything else at the plate remained elusive. He split the year between AA and AAA and hit .280/.404/.352.
At this point, a major league career finally seemed possible, though a long-term starting gig didn't seem to be in the cards. He got a chance to prove himself last year, however, after Orlando Cabrera got sent to the Twins. He responded by playing much better than anyone could have expected, hitting .279/.342/.418 in 229 plate appearances. As nice of a surprise as his season was, there were a few reasons to be skeptical about his big league performance. It was only a 60 game sample size and his ISO was higher than it had been since A ball. Perhaps the biggest red flag was his .342 BABIP, which was higher than his total at any minor league stop.
Which brings us to today. Pennington's line entering tonight's game is .263/.342/.424. What's most encouraging is that the components of his overall totals indicate that his line is not a fluke and that there may be more improvements to come. Compared to last season, he's walking more (he's walked in 10.6% of his PAs this year as opposed to 8.3% last year), striking out less (he's struck out in 20.2% of his PAs this year compared with 22.1% last year), and hitting for more power (.162 ISO in '10 versus a .139 ISO in '09). These figures continue a trend from his minor league totals. His walk rate rose and his K rate fell every year in the minors and only dropped off upon reaching the majors, which is to be expected. The power, however, is surprising.
Projecting player development is the holy grail of baseball operations departments and fantasy baseball players alike. But cases like Pennington show that figuring out how a young player will progress will never be perfected. No amount of scouting reports or data analysis would have come up with Pennington turning in the performance he has so far. It's obviously too early to say with any certainty that he's a no-doubt-about-it above average player, but everything he's done since last August indicates that he is.
Obviously, there's a chance that Pennington's not this good - ZIPS, which incorporates the current season's data to project the rest of the season, expects Pennington to hit .259/.331/.356 the rest of the way. I'm assuming that his dreadful minor league seasons keep his projections low. My admittedly optimistic interpretation of his vast improvements over the course of his professional career, however, is that Pennington has the ability to handle adversity, make adjustments, and learn how to make himself a better player. I wish I had data to back up this claim, but if numbers were always right, Pennington would have no right being the A's starting shortstop.