By Jason Shetler
In February of 2014, the Washington Nationals acquired Felipe Rivero, along with two other players, from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for pitcher Nate Karns. Rivero joined the Nationals in 2015, and pitched very well. He entered last season looking to become an even more integral part of their bullpen.
Two days prior to last year’s trade deadline, the Pirates dealt Mark Melancon to the Nationals for Rivero and prospect Taylor Hearn. The trade was criticized by most Pirates fans, with not only Melancon being a fan favorite, but also feeling like they gave up on the season. The reality is that Melancon wasn’t going to be re-signed, and the evidence of that was the contract he got from the San Francisco Giants this past offseason (four years/$62 million), so the Pirates did the right thing by selling high on him.
Rivero made a good impression when he came over, posting a 3.29 ERA, a 127 ERA+ and a K/9 of 12.8 in 28 appearances. Heading into this season, Rivero was going to be the seventh inning guy, with newly signed Daniel Hudson and former All-Star Tony Watson, as the setup man and closer respectively. Hudson has struggled so far in 2017, which allowed Rivero to move into the setup role. Watson wasn’t looking sharp as the closer, and he sealed his fate last week by blowing back-to-back save chances versus the Baltimore Orioles on game-tying home runs, both games the Pirates would lose in extra innings. Regardless of what role Rivero has been placed in, he has been impressive. But just how impressive exactly has he been this year? – Here is a statistical heavy breakdown.
In 34 appearances, Rivero currently has a 0.78 ERA. His FIP is 2.45, and his xFIP is at 2.71, which are still solid figures. The fastball velocity has increased for Rivero, going from 95.8 mph a year ago to 97.9 mph this season. He not only is he racking up strikeouts, with a 9.9 K/9, but he is also not walking many batters, as his BB/9 is 1.8. While he does have the ability to strikeout hitters consistently, he has also been generating a ton of groundballs, putting up a 64% groundball rate. The line drive rate for Rivero has been significantly better this year at 12.0%, which was at 21.5% last season. Not surprisingly, most of Rivero’s appearances have been high leverage, and he has been dominant in those situations, holding opponents to a .564 OPS. Among all National League relievers, Rivero has the lowest hard contact rate at 15.5%. Statcast has his average Exit Velocity off the fastball at 84.5 mph, much lower than the 2017 MLB average of 89.7 mph. Whether you want to refer to Rivero as a closer or a relief ace as I do, he is now establishing himself as one of the best young relief arms in the game.