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Field General

Hooks' Pena Downright Defensive
July 31, 2016

When Roberto Pena jogs onto Whataburger Field, takes his place between the umpires, and removes his helmet for the National Anthem, we're in for a treat.

You see, in a few moments, the most accomplished defensive catcher in Hooks history is going to work.

Ponder this: a year ago, Pena led Texas League catchers in caught-stealing percentage, gunning down a team single-season record of 49 percent. In 2014 at High-A Lancaster of the California League, the percentage was a circuit-best .565. Three seasons ago at Quad Cities, he took Midwest League honors at .518.

And 56.5 percent of the baserunners who have tried him in 2016 found themselves trotting back to the dugout.

A 2014 Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner as the top receiver in all of Minor League Baseball and two-time non-roster invitee to Astros Major League Spring Training, Pena's career fielding percentage is .992.

On four occasions, the three-time professional All-Star has been rated as the best defensive catcher in the Houston system.

"It's about attention to detail," Pena explained. "That, and being exposed to the strategy. Being around the game since I was a little kid has helped along the way. It was good to have my dad as a mentor, because he knew what it was going to take.

"Knowing the mental side has helped me a lot. I have to pay attention to the game, pay attention to the hitters. I have to pay attention to what my pitcher can do, what he can execute that day."

Pena's father, Bert, was an infielder for the Astros in 1981 and again from 1983-87. He appeared in 76 big-league games and made 42 starts, including 39 at shortstop. Bert later managed Puerto Rico's entry in the 2005 World Cup.

Like his dad and older brothers Bert Jr., and Carlos, Roberto grew up on the left side of the infield. Bert II, now 36, was primarily a third baseman, and Carlos (33) played the hot corner and shortstop. The third Pena child and only daughter, Adalivette (28), was an accomplished volleyball player, following in the footsteps of her mother, Ivette Santiago.

Roberto, 24, had a Puerto Rican youth baseball experience similar to former Hooks fan favorite (2012-14) Kike Hernandez, now a utility player with the Dodgers. Hernandez was drafted by Houston during the sixth round of the 2009 draft; Pena was selected a round later the next year.

Both competed extensively in the U.S. as youngsters. In fact, Pena first met teammate James Ramsay at a tournament in Monterey, Calif., at age 11.

"Our high school schedule was 15 to 20 games," Pena said of his experience at Eloisa Pascual. "We didn't have a state tournament or anything like that.

"But, I played year-round growing up. My last five years were with Team Mizuno, and that's when I started growing up as a player, taking it more seriously. They had coaches who played in the Major Leagues with all the tools to help us, people like Jose Flores, Edgar Perez, and Kike Ramos.

"I started out as a shortstop, and about two years before the draft they told me they were going to move me to third base. I started taking ground balls there, but on a couple of occasions I had to play second base, too. I grew up playing short. My dad was a shortstop, and my brothers were infielders. We took a lot of ground balls.

"Three months before the draft, they asked me if I wanted to catch."

And that's how the Astros took him, compelling Pena to forego a college career at Oklahoma State.

But all the infield training still comes in handy. When pressed into service at second base, sometimes as a result of emergency circumstances, Pena has flawlessly handled 15 chances in four games as a Hook over the last two seasons. He played another game at the keystone in Quad Cities in 2013 and occasionally plays first and third during winter ball at home.

"It just takes practice. I take my practices very seriously; that's what you're going to do in a game. You have to see what you can do, what you feel comfortable with. Work hard. There's no rest for baseball players, you just have to keep pushing and pushing."

What can Hooks pitchers expect from Pena the game manager?

"You have to motivate them sometimes so they can execute well. Some pitchers are calmer than others. Those are the ones you have to push at times."

Fundamentally, Roberto draws on Bert's teachings.

"He always said, 'If you're going to play, you're going to play the right way. Whether it's 30-1, 12-1, or 2-1, it doesn't matter. You guys have to have pride. People are watching from the stands. Little kids are looking up to you. Give them a good impression.'"

The youngest Pena has enjoyed a distinguished career. He's been part of championship teams in Quad Cities and Lancaster, spent 15 games in April and May as the catcher at Triple-A Fresno, and represented Puerto Rico in the Pan Am Games in July, 2015.

But clearly, the personal relationships and work ethic he's developed have defined Pena's career. This is the third place he's been managed by Rodney Linares.

"Rodney was my second manager in pro ball. He's helped me a lot," said Pena, who also cited two player development staff members along the way - Matt Galante and Danny Sheaffer - for their contributions to his success.

Pena is grateful for the guidance. He understands no one does it alone, and his teammates know they can count on him.