Rene Rivera is an Angel

marc w · January 18, 2018 at 12:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

In 2001, the Mariners won 116 games, as you may have heard. Their future looked bright as well, as the great Sam Miller reminded us yesterday. A great roster, the 2nd best farm system in the game, and a wonderful new stadium. Their draft that year – June of 2001 – looked…odd, but a system that good could overcome a reach on Michael Garciaparra. After that pick, the M’s took a young catcher out of Puerto Rico named Rene Rivera.

That well-regarded system that Sam mentioned? None of the prospectors were talking about Rene Rivera. The M’s already *had* their catcher of the future: Ryan Christianson, whom the M’s took with the 11th overall pick in 1999. He reached AA in 2002, and he was the guy M’s fans pictured catching Ryan Anderson’s untouchable fastballs for years to come. An injury to Christianson and Rivera’s great defense allowed the Puerto Rican teen to rise quickly, and he ended up getting a cup of coffee with the M’s at age 20 in 2004, but during that lost season, the M’s traded away Freddie Garcia and, with Christianson stalled out, acquired their next catcher of the future: Miguel Olivo. Olivo was just 25 then, and had been the Sox #2 prospect before getting a solid half-season of work on the South Side in 2003. Olivo brought power while Rivera…did not.

Olivo had the starting job locked up in 2005, but found himself mired in a historic slump. At the end of May, Olivo was slashing .145/.174/.236 with 33 Ks and 4 BBs in 110 PAs, and the M’s sent him down. His wRC+ in 157 total PAs with the club that year was 12, or the worst in club history for any batter with at least 100 plate appearances. In late July, they officially gave up, swapping him for veteran Miguel Ojeda. Was this Rivera’s moment? No, unfortunately. A few weeks before trading Olivo to San Diego, the M’s made a last-minute decision to skip SS Troy Tulowitzki and instead take USC catcher Jeff Clement with the 5th overall pick in the 2005 draft. Again, the M’s had a catcher of the future, and again, it wasn’t Rene Rivera.

This story isn’t just about Rivera getting picked over, though. He didn’t get *much* of a chance, but he got one in 2006 as a back-up to Kenji Johjima, newly arrived from Japan and the M’s catcher of the present. Rivera got to bat 106 times, and slashed .152/.184/.253, good for a wRC+ of 9. Just…9. The ink wasn’t even dry on Olivo’s dubious record, and Rivera had somehow lowered the bar. This blog took note, heaping scorn on the hapless Rivera and the woeful 2001 draft that set the stage for the collapse of the M’s system (though that collapse had more to do with the curious implosion of the prospect haul the M’s got from Chicago – the one that included Olivo and Jeremy Reed). Rivera was demoted to AA for 2007 and after another bad year at the plate, he was gone.

First the Dodgers in 2008, then the Mets the following year. He moved to the Yankees after a brief stint in the independent leagues for the Camden Riversharks, and when that came to nothing, signed on with the Twins in 2011. He hit well in in AAA, and with Joe Mauer injured, the Twins had a need for back-up catchers. Their own Drew Butera was on hand, but even Butera knew he couldn’t hit. He’d put up a slash line of .211/.268/.292 *in AAA* in 2009, but that was good enough, and he’d been the bench catcher for 2010 and 2011. Rivera actually had a slugging percentage that started with a 4 in AAA in 2011, and with Butera cratering to a big league line of .167/.210/.239, the Twins gave Rivera a shot. Butera’s wRC+ that year was just 19, one of the worst marks in THAT franchise’s long history for anyone with over 100 PAs, but Rivera – who just a year ago was in the Atlantic League – would give Butera some cover. In 114 PAs, Rivera hit .144/.211/.202, good for a wRC+ of 12. It was the worst mark in franchise history since 1964.

Rene Rivera had two semi-extended chances in the big leagues, separated by 5 years. In *both* of them, he became the worst hitter either team had seen in at least 45 years. However, I came here not to bury Rivera, but to praise him. In a sense, Rivera’s timing was perfect. By hanging on as a guy with a great defensive reputation, Rivera found himself in an era in which offense cratered league wide. No, he wasn’t exactly catching up to league average, but fortunately enough, league average was charging headlong towards him. And around this time, some amateur analysts at Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere started trying to quantify some hitherto ignored components of catcher defense. Dan Turkenkopf figured the run value of changing a ball to a strike, and then Mike Fast (and then Max Marchi) calculated these cumulative run values catchers could accrue by “framing” strikes. Rene Rivera had been the embodiment not merely of replacement level, but the *dregs* of freely-available players. He was “I don’t care anymore” made flesh and draped in catchers gear. But a combination of changes in how we viewed the game and changes in Rivera himself would make him a valuable player.

He signed on with the Padres org in 2013, and ended up getting plenty of time as Yasmani Grandal’s back-up in 2014 when Nick Hundley got hurt. Rivera responded to his 3rd extended stint in the pros – over 300 PAs! – by hitting .252/.319/.432 with 11 HRs. A change in his swing led him to hit a lot more fly balls, and thus, while his HR/FB ratio was pretty much unchanged from his minor league stints, the sheer number of fly balls pushed his HR and SLG% numbers way, way up. He played for the Mets again in 2016-17, with a lower average but a decent number of dongers, and he excelled after a late-season move to the Cubs. A free agent, Rivera signed a deal with the Angels this month for $2.8 million.

Rene Rivera has gone from near-forgotten org depth to punch line for two different teams, and then, as the game changed, to a perfectly respectable veteran presence back-up catcher. I’m not an Angels fan by any stretch, but I’ve been inordinately happy for Rivera since the signing was announced. This game belongs to the sluggers now, the Aaron Judges, Mike Trouts, and, improbably, Jose Altuves. I keep thinking that Kris Bryant literally couldn’t have chosen a better year to debut than 2015, and Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmermann, Josh Donaldson, Yonder Alonso and others figured out how to adjust to the changing game and excelled. All of them have figured out how to maximize their own talent. But I keep thinking of guys like Rivera who personify the changing game in large part because their careers span multiple eras or epochs within the game. When Rivera started out, it was us statheads mocking the concept of catcher ERA or the measurable components of catcher defense. That was problematic for a no-hit catcher, but then all of us went ahead and changed: offense dropped, making glove-first Cs less of a run-sucking black hole in a line-up. The statheads reversed course, and finally figured out how to measure a lot of the things that had seemed unquantifiable. And Rivera actually improved. The game changed, how front offices view the game changed, and Rivera changed, too. In a hot stove season in which so few players are actually signing FA deals, I’m really, really glad that Rivera signed one, and that – at age 34, having spanned the Ryan Christianson era through the present, from the M’s being the best club in history through their entire playoff drought – Rivera will get a sizable raise and earn the largest salary of his career.


7 Responses to “Rene Rivera is an Angel”

  1. heyoka on January 18th, 2018 2:45 pm

    When a guy makes a living playing a game, you gotta wonder what he does for fun. Like when you’re hanging out with Rene Rivera, and you’re like, “I’m bored, let’s play a game,” does he roll his eyes and say, “I play a game all day for work, why don’t we wash some dishes or do some reports in excel instead?”

  2. Steve Nelson on January 18th, 2018 3:20 pm

    IIRC – Rivera was selected with the compensation pick the Mariners received when ARod signed with Texas.

  3. Westside guy on January 18th, 2018 4:16 pm

    @heyoka: Rene Rivera – Master of Pivot Tables.

  4. Coug1990 on January 18th, 2018 7:57 pm

    Good read. I always enjoy your work. One small correction, Jeff Clement was picked third overall.

  5. heyoka on January 18th, 2018 11:05 pm

    @westside: the VLOOKUP() king

    By day, he’s an ordinary baseball player. By night, Rene Rivera is…the Excelerator!

  6. groundzero55 on January 19th, 2018 3:46 am

    Wow. What a reminder of what was really going on in the Mariners system in the early 2000s. The big league team was busy keeping the fans’ attention winning 116, 93 and 93 games for three years straight, but in the minor leagues and in the draft room, absolute disaster was striking, with the exception of two notable prospects joining in 2003 (one that would be traded five years later), that would irretrievably turn the fortunes of the franchise for the next decade and a half at least. Some extremely painful drafts.

  7. Steve Nelson on January 19th, 2018 9:22 am


    The Mariners of that time (Gillick, and first couple of years of Bavasi when Bavasi was Gillick’s sock puppet) placed little value on high draft picks.

    An example is when they signed Raul Ibañez as a free agent in November 2003, needlessly surrendering their first round pick in the 2004 draft. The galling story is that the Mariners signed Ibañez before the date by which teams needed to make a qualifying offer. The Royals had already made clear that they weren’t going to give Ibañez a qualifying offer, so the Mariners could have waited a couple of more weeks to sign him and kept their first round pick. But when Ibañez signed early with the Mariners, the Royals gladly extended to him a qualifying offer he had to refuse, and collected a first round compensation pick (#31 overall in the 2004 draft).

    If you go back in the USSM archives, I think there may be an article Dave Cameron wrote about a study on the value of draft picks that was prepared for Gillick by someone. The study reportedly concluded that early round picks weren’t worth the added money that was spent acquiring them. So the Mariners didn’t care that they needlessly forfeited a #1 pick when they signed Ibañez, and their draft results suggest that they didn’t put much effort into those picks when they did have them.

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