I can’t be alone in thinking that there is something quietly heartbreaking when athletes’ elite skills go unseen and unappreciated because of their team’s losing ways. Here’s to all those offensive lineman in football who bamboozle defenders with their size and speed, only to see their quarterback get continually sacked thanks to the shoddy work of the other, subpar linemen. Here’s to all those soccer defenders who intercept any and all passes in their vicinity, only to see a parade of goals trickle in from the other side.
This is a feeling that we can identify with more than most feats in sports, that helpless group-project sensation of: “Hey, I’m actually doing a good job here! It’s actually this guy’s fault. Really!” Just as we must semi-futilely hope that a benevolent boss/teacher recognizes our nonetheless positive contributions to an otherwise negative result, the specialists marooned on a loser must hope that, somewhere out there, a general manager (with a budget, preferably) has been watching from afar in silent appreciation of their skills.
So describes the 2014 of Rene Rivera, San Diego Padres catcher.
At the start of this season, Rivera had played in 121 big league games across five non-consecutive seasons. Although he debuted with the Seattle Mariners in 2004 at just age 20, he never stayed put on the major league roster in his first three seasons. For four long seasons between 2007 and 2010, Rivera was stuck in minor-league purgatory, getting passed around to the Dodgers, Mets and Yankees minor league systems without ever getting called up to the big show.
After a 45-game cameo with the 2011 Twins, Rivera spent his entire 2012 back in Triple-A once more (including a none-too-shabby inning pitched) before being signed as a free agent before the 2013 by the Padres. At the end of 2013, Rivera appeared back in the big leagues for a 21-game cameo. This would appear to be the story of one of myriad Quad-A players. Something of a bust, even, considering he was drafted ahead of consistent-to-excellent big-leaguers like J.P. Howell, J.J. Hardy, Dan Haren, and World Series Game Seven starter Jeremy Guthrie.
So 2014 was new territory for Rivera in that he opened up the season with the big-league club, was never sent down to the minors, and played 103 games, versus a combined 121 previously. Where Rivera’s season gets even more incredible is that he ended the season ranked ninth among catchers in cumulative FanGraphs WAR. Or: FanGraphs has Rivera contributing a single run of value less than Yadier Molina, even though Molina received 116 more plate appearances and 197.2 more innings behind the plate. Or: Salvador Perez got 277 more plate appearances and 514.2 more innings, and managed to outpace Rivera by only three runs. In fact, everybody else in the Top 20 in catcher WAR caught more innings and received more plate appearances than Rivera. In his previous seasons, Rivera’s plus defensive contributions tended to be wiped away by his anemic offensive production: during his 2011 Twins cameo, Rivera slashed a depressing .144/.211/.202. But even Rivera’s bat was alive this year: his slash line of .252/.319/.432 is extremely similar to John Jaso‘s 2014 line of .264/.337/.430, and Jaso is included in the lineup expressly for his offensive prowess.
And then you have to consider: FanGraphs WAR does not take pitch-framing into consideration. And pitch-framing is where Rivera starts to look like a superstar.
Back in May, Jeff Sullivan noticed that the Padres — then as now dawdling along, winning 45 percent of their games — were leading the league in “stolen” strikes, or pitches that PITCHf/x deemed out of the zone but were called strikes anyway. Writing for Fox Sports, Sullivan showed that the Padres had “stolen” a net of 52 extra strikes through the first month and a day of the season, a comfortable margin ahead of Jonathan Lucroy and the second-place Milwaukee Brewers (then with 47), considerably ahead of the Jose Molina/Ryan Hanigan duo of the Tampa Bay Rays (then with 22), and so far ahead of the last-place Minnesota Twins (who had “lost” 44 strikes at that point) that they couldn’t be seen around the earth’s curvature. Writing for FanGraphs later that same month, Sullivan noticed that, of all the pitchers in baseball, Padres starter Andrew Cashner was experiencing the biggest jump in stolen strikes from 2013 to 2014.
That was May. Now that the season’s over, the Padres aren’t just a handful of stolen strikes ahead of the still-second-place Brewers. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Padres ended the year almost a hundred stolen strikes ahead of the Brewers. With a net of 383 stolen strikes, the Padres’ catchers stole more than twice as many cumulative pitches as the fifth-place San Francisco Giants, who came in at 189. Even Tampa Bay’s much-praised duo of Molina and Hanigan could come up with only 55 percent of the Padres’ total.
Significant credit for this accomplishment must also go to Yasmani Grandal, who caught 604.2 innings compared to Rivera’s 734. But, according to StatCorner, Rivera steals both more strikes per game than Grandal (1.75 to 1.43), and Rivera also steals a greater percentage of pitches from outside the strike zone (9.7 percent to 9.0 percent). As if in deference to Rivera’s superior pitch-framing skills, Grandal played only five of his 24 September games at catcher, spending most of his time at first base (with Yonder Alonso injured), leaving Rivera behind the plate.
Again: this was Rene Rivera’s first full season in the majors. He is already a pitch-framing All-Star.
I don’t find it at all a coincidence that Sullivan found Cashner to have received such an expanded strike zone from 2013 to 2014. Indeed, Rivera has turned into something of Cashner’s personal receiver, catching all of Cashner’s innings in 2014, and also his last five starts of 2013. (Cashner, too, was a quiet superstar of 2014, disguised by midseason injury and full-season lack of run support. His 3.09 FIP sandwiches nicely in-between those posted by Madison Bumgarner and Colin McHugh.)
Things start to look really dramatic when you separate Cashner’s career into two halves: his last 161 innings, which he’s pitched to Rivera, and the previous 248.2 innings, which he pitched to a variety of catchers going back to his 2010 debut with the Cubs. According to baseballsavant, during Cashner’s pre-Rivera innings he threw 4,033 pitches outside the strike zone, 188 of which were called for strikes, or 4.6 percent. With Rivera, now, Cashner has thrown 2,337 pitches outside the zone, with 192 of those being called for strikes — that’s almost double the rate, at 8.2 percent.
The duo has even better days. On April 11 of this past season, Cashner pitched a complete game shutout against the Detroit Tigers, walking two, striking out 11, and allowing only a bloop single to Rajai Davis. Of Cashner’s 108 pitches that day, Rivera pulled in at least a dozen (the count varied between BrooksBaseball and baseballsavant), or at least 11 percent of Cashner’s total pitches. It looked sexy. Really sexy:
While the framework there is impeccable, the Padres were able to separate from the rest of the league so dramatically because Rivera does not let any good strikes go to waste, either. Both BrooksBaseball and baseballsavant track only four pitches in the zone getting called for balls. And, whaddaya know, we’ve got three missed targets and one burst from the crouch on a stolen base attempt:
That’s a cumulative gain of at least eight stolen strikes on the day, which is far beyond even the Padres’ league-leading pace.
One thing you’ll notice about Rivera’s framing technique is that he is constantly in motion — or, the opposite of the near-zen stillness that is thought of as optimal for a framing catcher.
Here’s an example of Molina framing a pitch from outside the zone. Note the slow pre-pitch slide over to the outside of the plate, the target offered early to his pitcher, and Molina’s near-total stillness when the ball is actually in the air. There’s something actually delicate about it:
The downside to this stoic approach is that there is very little margin for error if the pitcher does not hit the target with total accuracy. Here’s a pitch from earlier in the same inning as above that caught the zone, but was called a ball. Molina does all of the same calm pre-pitch movements — but the pitch misses his target a touch high:
The umpire may be swayed here by Molina’s dramatic — relatively speaking — arm movement. While pitcher Jeremy Hellickson stood to gain a strike from outside the zone if the pitch hit exactly Molina’s target, he lost what should have been a strike with this slight miss.
Now look at this individual example from the Tigers game above:
There is so much movement! Whereas Molina already has his target set before his pitcher begins his motion, Rivera actually does a little hop to the outside of the plate while Cashner is winding up. Rivera briefly shows a target, put then pulls the glove all the way down and then back up again to actually catch the pitch.
The key, I think, is that Rivera always makes sure that his body is centering up on the pitch. At the moment Molina receives the pitch, his right (non-glove side) foot is just about in line with the chalk from the empty batter’s box, with his right foot and knee angling away from the pitcher:
Rivera, meanwhile, has his right foot all the way into the middle of the empty batter’s box:
While the right half of Rivera’s body is not totally facing the pitcher, his shoulders are a lot closer to being square to the field. The cumulative effect of the motion and movement is that it gives Rivera’s pitcher a larger target (even if Rivera is not holding his glove steady right at that target) to pitch to where Rivera can catch the pitch in the center of his body. By pulling his glove down after momentarily offering the target, Rivera has created a style where there is (centered, rhythmic) arm movement on every pitch, instead of moving only his arm — and tipping off umpires — when a pitch misses a glove-sized target.
This style has really allowed Padres pitchers to have dominion over the low, outside corner, nabbing strikes that hitters would have to lunge to make contact with. It seems like it was part of a consistent strategy for Rivera and his battery mate to nip that corner on 0-0. Here is a rare and delightful instance where a productive on-field strategy is not accurately reflected in conventional statistics. While a framed 3-2 pitch adds more Win Value than a framed 0-0 pitch, that immediate jump to 0-1 tilts the at-bat into the favor of Padres pitchers, Rivera’s framing working symbiotically with the pitcher’s overall strategy.
Using Cashner as a specific example: During the pre-Rivera part of his career, Cashner got this type of framed, first-pitch strike on 79 of the 1,053 batters he faced, or 7.5 percent of the time. With Rivera now, Cashner has faced 643 batters and received this type of frame on 83 occasions, or 12.9 percent of the time.
It wasn’t just Cashner, either. Here’s a small and hypnotic sampling of Rivera earning his pitchers 0-1 counts over and over:
The general manager who signed Rivera for the Padres has been fired. Rivera himself won’t be a free agent until after the 2016 season, when he’ll be 33 years old. At least Rivera has receive this bit of good fortune: he has grabbed a foothold in the majors at just the right time when both front offices and the stats-savvy public can appreciate his unique defensive talents. (Of course, throwing out 36.2 percent of base stealers can be appreciated in any era.) It remains a mystery why and how Rivera was forced to languish so long in the minors before getting his first genuine opportunity, and it’s just as inexplicable how he conducted himself as the most seasoned of veterans with just a smattering of big league games on his resume. At least now, finally, Rene Rivera won’t be going away anytime soon.