Of Course Rene Rivera Is Going to the Rays

Last month, not only did the Tampa Bay Rays cut Jose Molina, but, as Jeff detailed, no other Major League team was or has been interested in picking Molina up, even for the smallest of prices. As somebody who has always had their interests piqued by pitch-framing, this tiny morsel of a transaction nonetheless triggered a miniature existential crisis on the significance and value of pitch-framing. Have the estimates of framing value been, in fact, comically optimistic? Have savvier umpires begun to render this skill a moot point? Is there some other factor about the nature of the catcher position that we, on the outside, simply don’t know?

Some of those things may very well be true, maybe even all of them. But before we use the Rays dumping Molina as an example of the preacher turning pagan, let us consider yesterday’s big trade between the Rays, Nationals, and Padres. Somewhere amidst this flurry of new forwarding addresses, defensive-minded catcher Ryan Hanigan went from Tampa Bay to San Diego, while defensive-minded catcher Rene Rivera went from San Diego to Tampa Bay. The catcher swap was the minor part of the deal for the public, but perhaps the Rays don’t see it that way. In fact, if they still believe strongly in the value of catcher defense, perhaps the Rays didn’t even consider themselves as selling low on Wil Myers, given the potential value that Rivera might provide.

I felt like I discovered the unreleased demos of a destined-to-be-famous band when I watched Rivera play last year. Last month, I tried my best to toot Rivera’s horn in a veritable Rivera ode over at The Hardball Times. A couple of relevant statistics from 2014, Rivera’s first full season in the big leagues:

1. Rivera finished ninth among all catchers in WAR while finishing only 31st at the position in plate appearances, and 27th in innings caught. This is a statistic that does not include pitch-framing considerations.
2. According to StatCorner’s Catcher Report, Rivera finished fifth in cumulative successfully framed pitches while catching only the 26th-most pitches among catchers.

Rivera, who spent most of his age-30 2013 season in Triple-A, stacked up quite favorably to the Rays’ established duo of Molina and Hanigan — or any other of the game’s great framers– in the rate at which he framed pitches. Using StatCorner’s data, here are the percentages of 2014 pitches received by each catcher that were: within the strike zone but called as balls (zBall% — the lower the better), or outside of the strike zone but called strikes (oStr% — the higher the better), plus the average amount of pitches each catcher was stealing per game.

  zBall% oStr% PerGame
Rene Rivera 10.2 9.7 1.75
Jose Molina 10.2 9.7 1.81
Ryan Hanigan 11 7.1 0.23
Hank Conger 8.9 9.8 2.21
Jonathan Lucroy 11.5 9.2 1.29
Yadier Molina 11.9 7.5 0.18
Mike Zunino 10.5 9.2 1.45
Russell Martin 11.8 8.7 0.91
Francisco Cervelli 10.3 9.2 1.47
David Ross 11.5 9.9 1.66

Here, Conger revealed himself to be the class of the league in 2014. But Rivera is not that far behind, producing almost identical statistics to Jose Molina. Of course, as we’ve seen with the middle Molina’s abrupt release, this alone is not enough to keep a catcher employed. How does Steamer project these catchers’ bats?

Rene Rivera .233 .290 .361 87
Jose Molina .213 .268 .289 63
Ryan Hanigan .230 .319 .318 86
Hank Conger .230 .297 .368 88
Jonathan Lucroy .282 .348 .433 117
Yadier Molina .286 .337 .420 113
Mike Zunino .220 .275 .406 94
Russell Martin .242 .341 .405 111
Francisco Cervelli .249 .316 .347 91
David Ross .207 .276 .347 75

It’s quite easy to detect the overall stars of catching in this chart. There is, just perhaps, reason to believe that Rivera’s 2015 batting line will look a bit more like Zunino’s and a bit less like Ross’ or Hanigan’s. For most of Rivera’s career, it appears that his bat is what kept him toiling for so long in the minor leagues. Rivera hit a nauseating .152/.184/.253 during a 106-PA cameo with the Seattle Mariners in 2006, and history repeated itself as he slashed .144/.211/.202 during 114 PA’s with the 2011 Minnesota Twins. Even Rivera’s minor league hitting totals were nothing spectacular: .233/.271/.404 with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons at age 25, .268/.325/.450 with the Rochester Red Wings at age 27.

Preposterously, though, Rivera seemingly learned to hit once he entered the Padres’ organization. At Triple-A Tucson in 2013, Rivera hit a smoking .343/.382/.474, and proceeded to hit .252/.310/.413 in his 400 PA’s in San Diego, which is simply stellar for a defensive-focused catcher, especially in Petco Park. You never want to overreact to a single season’s performance, but Rivera’s breakthrough was so different from his track record that it at least gives some hope that something tangibly changed.

And even with Steamer projecting a big step back with the plate, his 87 wRC+ projection is still perfectly reasonable for a defensive-minded catcher. That puts Rivera right in line with Hanigan, who was just last winter signed to a 3-year/$10.75M deal, and Conger, who this winter cost the Houston Astros two prospects for his three arbitration years.

What’s crazy about all of Rivera’s early years of wandering is that he, too, has three arbitration years remaining now, at age 31. Here are the future salary outlays for all of these catchers, with some help from Spotrac and Cot’s Contracts. Salary numbers with an asterisk are sourced from MLBTradeRumors’ Projected Arbitration Salaries list (CO = Club Option, MO = Mutual Option):

  2015 2016 2017 2018
Rene Rivera $1.30* Arb-2 Arb-3 FA
Jose Molina FA      
Ryan Hanigan $3.50 $3.70 $3.75 (CO) FA
Hank Conger $1.10* Arb-2 Arb-3 FA
Jonathan Lucroy $3.30 $4.25 $5.2 (CO) FA
Yadier Molina $15 $14 $14 $15 (MO)
Mike Zunino Min Min Arb-1 Arb-2
Russell Martin $7 $15 $20 $20
Francisco Cervelli $1.10* Arb-3 FA  
David Ross FA      

Yes, Lucroy’s contract is ridiculous, which is why Dave ranked it in July as the 14th-most valuable contract in the Majors. It’s such a good contract, actually, that it’s probably unattainable without thoroughly gutting the Rays’ current system. The same goes for Zunino, who is not yet at the same star level but is also not yet 200 games into his Major League career. Conger and Cervelli both have similarly appealing team-friendly deals, and were acquired for reasonable trade packages earlier this offseason. But it’s worth remembering that neither of these catchers have ever put together anything close to Rivera’s 3-WAR 2014.

So yes, the Rays bid adieu to the first pitch-framing superstar this winter. They didn’t dare go a month, however, without adding a new potential framing icon to their ranks. Perhaps the Rays didn’t turn against the faith after all.

Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.

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I absolutely hate to even hint at the possibility, but I can’t help but think that there’s plausibly an elephant-in-the-room situation here.