The Surprising(ly Powerful) Rene Rivera


Jul 2, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Padres catcher Rene Rivera (44) follows through during an at bat during the eighth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

You probably recognize my name from game updates, recaps or the weekend editorial. But my real passion when it comes to baseball is analyzing trends. The Padres haven’t given a whole lot of different trends to study this year, outside of bad hitting, good pitching, Ian Kennedy’s resurrection and Tyson Ross’ slider. So that’s what makes Rene Rivera so much fun for me.

I’ll be honest, even though I think of myself highly when it comes to baseball knowledge, I had no idea who Rivera was when I first heard his name. So I looked him up and found out why I’ve never heard of him; he had accumulated negative wins during his career since his age 20 debut.

Now, here’s where a theme begins. As I was reading The Hardball Times Annual for 2014, Rene Rivera ranked among the top catchers on their rate framing statistic. Since framing is something new, it wouldn’t be factored into WAR for any season prior, or even the current season. Maybe Rivera wasn’t as bad as I thought. With the Padres movement towards defensive catchers (Yasmani Grandal, flipped Nick Hundley from terrible to above average, have the top framing prospect in MiLB Austin Hedges) this fit the narrative.

This year, watching the offense struggle and fall over through knee deep water left me shaking my head, has made live tweeting some games dreadful and I feel has made the overall point of many recaps repetitive. I found myself mad at every player. Chase Headley, for never finding his power stroke within even a shadow of his 2012 campaign. Jedd Gyorko for being absolutely terrible and impatient, not just because of his injury. Yonder Alonso because trading Mat Latos should fetch more than just a good framing catcher. Cameron Maybin for the ridiculous extension Josh Byrnes gave him and his inability to stay healthy.

Still, Rivera got a pass. “He plays good defense,” was my argument for keeping him in the lineup over the higher potential Grandal. And then, Rivera pulled another dove out of his hat; he started mashing.

Quick, tell me who the most powerful catcher is. Use isolated power, or ISO, which is basically SLG%-batting average. It’s not Brian McCann and his swanky new short porch. Nope, not Buster Posey either. Joe Mauer hasn’t had power since ’09!

Yeah, it’s Rene Rivera. His .217 mark not only leads the position, but has him 26th in the majors. How does a career whose elite defense can’t even keep him on a team for more than a couple seasons all of a sudden become so lethal at the plate? It’s almost simple. For starters, Rivera is hitting pretty much everything into the air this year, with a 54.3% fly ball rate. This puts him at an increase of 15.8 percentage points, up from 38.5% in 2013. This is a huge jump, one of the top jumps we’ve seen since batted ball profiles have been tracked. Hitting fly balls is a great idea for power, since that’s how you hit a homer. It’s also how you can generate deep doubles, sac flies and even leg out a few triples.

One of the issues fans have is that his batting average has taken a hit, but that’s expected. Ground balls go for hits more often than fly balls because of their unpredictability, and less time for a fielder to catch up to them. His average on balls in play (BABIP) took an obvious fall, down from .321 to .273 this year.

(Note: BABIP is often used by fans and writers to measure “luck” since about 30% of balls in play fall for hits. The idea is that extremes such as .250 and .350 will regress back towards .300, but that is a misguided assumption. Different batted ball types affect BABIP, so ground ball hitters and speed demons will have higher marks than power hitters, especially since home runs are not ruled “in play” since a fielder generally can’t actually make a play on them. Of course, some BABIP numbers are unsustainable, and will regress back towards the mean (not “to the mean” as that implies the number will just change to the average). But it’s important to look at everything before blindly assuming, a good rule for anything really)

But just saying Rivera is hitting fly balls isn’t enough of a conclusion. We want to know how he’s doing this. The first thing to look at is to see if he’s swinging more. Often we see power breakouts because of a grip it and rip it approach (hello Marlon Byrd and JD Martinez!), instead Rivera is actually swinging less. He’s chasing less pitches, from an extreme 44.6% to a more manageable 37.7%. He’s even being more selective in the strike zone, cutting it down by three percentage points to 67.8%. The more patient approach hasn’t affected his contact much though, as he’s seen them just drop by two percentage points.

Check out where he’s been swinging this year, compared to his career averages before:

Look at his swing percentage plots. His increased fly ball rate and advanced selectivity are easy to explain now. He’s just not swinging anymore at low pitches, opting instead for elevated pitches. These pitches are harder to make contact with, which explains his lower contact%, but they also allow for bigger power numbers. The power hasn’t translated towards a big homer output, but that’s almost expected when he plays half his games in spacious San Diego. He’s hitting a ton of power doubles instead, thanks to a new approach at the plate that’s helping him add some offensive value as well.

A journeyman catcher who can’t hit comes to San Diego. I don’t think your projections would match what Rene Rivera has done this year. It’s not easy for hitters to change their approach so significantly as Rivera has done, although perhaps being a catcher helps, since he sees pitches up close more often than any other position. Now he’s not just helping the team by stealing his pitchers extra strikes, but he’s hitting the ball well and hard. He’s been 11% better than an average major league hitter, and 16% more productive than the average catcher. Rene Rivera is a name to know, and a name to remember.