Between two back-to-back rough seasons by the Pittsburgh Pirates where they didn’t come close to contending—including this season—and prior to that, back-to-back years of finishing second in the NL Central and being bounced out of the postseason in the Wild Card game, the Pirates and their fans have sailed through some rough waters these last few years. As a result, this hasn’t given the city of Pittsburgh much to cheer for when speaking about the Pirates. (On the other hand, their hockey team, the Penguins, have been something else, so don’t feel too bad for Yinzers.)
However, there is one thing that should unite Pirates fans in rejoicing: the way Mr. Felipe Rivero is establishing himself as one of baseball’s premier closers.
Having just turned 26 in July and with only a season and a half of MLB experience prior to the start of this season, Rivero is rising to the top fast. During a solid rookie campaign in which he tossed just over 48 innings with an ERA and FIP well under three, an xFIP of 3.44, and a strikeout to walk ratio of 4.37, he forced his way through the door of the Washington Nationals bullpen as a permanent member.
The following year, Rivero experienced the proverbial sophomore slump, posting an ERA of 4.23 in the first four months of 2016, albeit paired with solid peripherals and a 3.27 FIP and 3.63 xFIP. This again forced the hand of the Nationals: due to bullpen struggles and the postseason implications of limping into October with a shaky bullpen, one lacking a go-to closer, Washington decided to make an acquisition via trade. This led them to Pittsburgh and Mark Melancon, who they acquired in exhcange for Rivero.
This trade has proven its value to the Pirates multiple times over, as they now have a hard-throwing, left-handed closer who’s only 26 years old. He’s also continuing to get better in all aspects of the game, but the most surprising part of Rivero’s rise to stardom is his velocity and how much it’s increased.
Between his 2015 rookie season and this season, Rivero’s fastball has gained three miles per hour. Although there has been a slight uptick in velocity readings across the major leagues, it wasn’t anywhere close to a three mile per hour change (closer instead to about a full mile per hour).
The result is that Rivero’s fastball went from fast to one of the fastest. Of the 359 relievers who have tossed at least 10 innings this season, only three relievers have an average fastball that’s quicker than Rivero’s average of 98.8 mph. The first one is obvious—New York Yankees’ closer Aroldis Chapman, at 100.1 mph—with Joe Kelly of the Boston Red Sox at ranking second at 99.3 and the St. Louis Cardinals’ would-be closer Trevor Rosenthal (out for the year with Tommy John surgery) third at 98.9.
Now velocity isn’t everything, and I know I say that a lot, but as I’ve also said before, 2017 Chapman is great evidence of that. Velocity is just another tool a pitcher can use to his advantage when it’s utilized properly, but if the other tools are lacking, it’s not worth much.
Regardless of velocity, if I asked you to name a lock-down reliever who’s been incredibly good this season and has a career resume to back up this season’s performance, I would expect to hear at least a couple of these names: Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, Andrew Miller and Pat Neshek. In my opinion when we’re talking about relievers with multiple years of success, and an especially successful 2017 thus far, those are the four names that I would list first.
Then you have your Chad Greene’s, your Corey Knebel’s, and of course Rivero. These guys are the next generation of lock-down relievers, who a couple of years from now, will likely be listed in response to this question, just as I did with this generation’s crop of top-tiered relievers.
To put the season Rivero is having into perspective, I set up a chart comparing his 2017 season with that of Kimbrel, Jansen, Miller and Neshek. The first thing you may notice is that he’s beaten in most categories. I do not expect him to beat Neshek or Miller in his third season, and it’s almost a statistical impossibility that anyone will ever have a season like Kimbrel or Jansen is having in their first two or three major league seasons.
Comparing Rivero to Elite Relievers
The point is that Rivero is already incredibly good at a very young age. He compares favorably to the highest paid relievers in baseball, yet he still hasn’t hit arbitration. This speaks volumes to Rivero’s work ethic, and how quickly he’s adapted to being a major-league closer.
Although Pirates fans haven’t had much to cheer for this season, Rivero will be someone they can cheer for now and many years into the future. He has all the makings of an elite reliever who’s continuing to grow and improve at an unbelievable pace. It’s too early to say Rivero will be just as good as Kimbrel, Jansen, Miller or Neshek, but another season or two of the progress he’s shown this season and his name will fit there quite nicely.
At the very least, Rivero will be a pillar in the Pirates bullpen until he’s eligible for free agency in 2022 or Pittsburgh decides to trade him away for prospects. Whatever you do, don’t sleep on Rivero’s potential, or you could up feeling like the Nationals.