Felipe Rivero threw a 102 MPH pitch Saturday. 102 MPH! That’s mind boggling! And that was just one of five doozies that hit triple digits that day.
Rivero has been the crown jewel in the bullpen so far this season, posting an 0.87 ERA and 0.823 WHIP. He’s fanned 24 batters, and after averaging 5.93 BB/9 as a Pirate last year, he’s only handed out four free passes in 20.2 innings, for a 1.74 BB/9. To top it all off, he has stranded seven of the eight runners he has inherited this year.
And he can throw 102.
His offspeed stuff has been just as good as his heater, if not better. So far, he’s thrown 57 changeups and 43 sliders. Out of those 100 pitches, 18 have been whiffs, and the guys at the plate are just 1-22 against them. Again, mind boggling! And did I mention he threw a baseball in a sanctioned major league exhibition 102 miles per hour? That’s not normal.
So what changed for Rivero? How did he go from a hard throwing lefty with a 4.53 ERA with Washington to one of the best southpaw relievers in the game?
It’s his follow through. Here is Rivero with Washington last year.
And here he is this year. The first video is from April, the second from the Pirates’ trip to LA this past week.
He’s no longer throwing against his body. It’s much more direct and straight to the plate. Less potential energy is wasted. It’s why his average fastball speed has jumped from 95.3 in Washington to 97.3 as a Buc.
He’s halfway off the mound heading towards third with Washington. When he’s dialed in this year, he’s taking at most a baby step in either direction. This is the evolution of a thrower to a pitcher. To think Washington valued him as half of the necessary package to get two months of Mark Melancon. Now they get to face a monster they helped create this week when they come to town.
If there is one concern around Rivero, it is how often he has been used so far. Coming into play Monday, only two relievers have more appearances than his 20 this year. He has thrown the most innings out of anyone who has made as many trips from the bullpen, ranging from 1.2 more frames to 8.1. He’s even in the top 10 in innings pitched for a reliever, and the rest of that top 10 has an awful lot of middle relievers.
But isn’t this what the Pirates are supposed to be doing, getting the most value out of a player as possible? Like any pitcher or player, a reliever’s value increases with the number of innings they throw. It does come with a toll, though.
If you weren’t alive in the 70’s (don’t feel bad, I wasn’t around yet either [ahem – ALEX]), you might not remember Mike Marshall, but you might have heard his name brought up when there is a discussion on great seasons for relief pitchers. He was worth 4.1 fWAR in 1974- the most all-time for a reliever- mostly because he made 106 appearances and pitched 208.1 innings. That’s insane and borderline pitcher abuse. His 13 straight games pitched streak is as untouchable as Cy Young’s 511 wins. That year is often talked about, but people rarely bring up the toll it took on him in ‘75. He was still an All-Star, but his WAR dropped to 0.4: 10 percent of the season before. In his final seven years after ‘74, he averaged about one fifth of the WAR he had that one magical year. That’s still good for a reliever, but not outstanding, especially since a lot of it came just from the amount of innings he pitched.
But Marshall pitched in a time where team’s played Russian roulette with pitchers’ arms because they did not know how to take care of them. A better and more recent comparison would be to Tony Watson. Watson made 78 appearances in 2014 and then 77 more in 2015. Last year he was given a reprieve and went “only” 70 times, which was still in the top 30 in baseball. From 2013 to the present, only two other relief pitchers have been called on more than him (not coincidentally, one of those guys in front is Mark Melancon).
From 2014 to 2016, Watson’s fastball velocity and soft contact percentage went down. Melancon also had a similar drop in velocity under the weight of the same workload. Watson’s hard contact percentage went up too, and after allowing just eight homers in the two previous seasons combined, he surrendered 10 dingers in 2016. Was it just aging, or was all the use wearing him down? Probably a little of a column A, a little of column B. It’s worth noting that after being given more human workloads in 2017, Watson is generating more soft contact again and Melancon’s velocity was up before going on the DL.
But this bullpen needs all the help it can get, and Rivero has been mesmerizing. Hurdle called on Rivero just twice this past road trip. That’s good. If it’s not a high leverage situation, sit him. In 2013, Hurdle would purposefully try to get extended breaks for Justin Wilson. That turned out great. Granted that 2013 team had three bona fide late inning options besides Wilson, while the 2017 team has Watson, maybe Juan Nicasio and maybe Daniel Hudson if he can get some things together. Giving him a week off just isn’t going to happen.
Rivero has been lights out. It makes sense to keep using him. Just be sure to remember the cautionary tales of Marshall and Watson and how a player might slip if he is overworked.