The Pirates aren’t a whole lot of fun to watch this year. I finally got that off my chest last week.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy some performances by individuals on a more granular level. The brightest spot in a fairly dismal season, and an even more gruesome bullpen edition, has been the emergence of Felipe Rivero. As a small reminder, for the Pirates giving up Mark Melancon for two months to the Nationals last August, the Pirates are now proud owners of Rivero for this season and four more after this. Mike Rizzo has a special pillow in his office that he cries into when he thinks about Rivero as he watches his equally terrible bullpen potentially submarine a World Series contender.
Rivero throws four pitches: 98 mph fastball, 88 mph change, 84 mph slider, and an occasional 82 curve. Amazingly, all four grade out as positive this year, with his slider being worth +3.5 runs/100 pitches and the fastball & change rating in the +2.2 runs/100 tier. His curve, when he throws it 5% of the time, has been worth a devastating +5.75 runs/100 pitches.
Relievers are usually relievers because they only have 1 or 2 pitches that are effective. It’s patently unfair that with the emergence of his changeup as an additional weapon that Rivero is ‘just’ a reliever. As is the case with a dominant reliever, it comes up in conversation that he should be tried out as a starter. Although Rivero is dominant now, that doesn’t automatically translate to dominant over multiple times through the order — his fastball velocity will drop by a few mph, hitters may adjust after multiple viewings, etc.
Heading into the All-Star Break, Felipe Rivero has a spit-take-inducing ERA of 0.76 with a FIP of 2.33, resulting in a WAR of 1.5. As a reliever, mind you. The FIP number (and common sense) says that Rivero is a candidate to regress a tad in the second half. He may even *gasp* blow a save, which I’m sure the Pirate fanbase will handle with aplomb. But for now, let’s take a look at where Rivero stacks up among the greatest reliever performances in Pirate history, utilizing various leader boards from Fangraphs. I’ve set the boards this way: all the way back for the entire Pirate history, minimum threshold of 40 innings so I can get Rivero and his 47 innings in there.
First up is single-season WAR for a reliever:
There’s Rivero, in a tie for 21st with among others, my man Cecilio Guante. 1985 was my year that I remember actually starting to follow the Pirates. It’s amazing I’m still a fan, but as mentioned repeatedly at TPOP, I’m a masochist. Goose Gossage is the gold standard for the Pirates’ franchise in terms of single-season WAR, mostly because he accrued more innings than we may see again for just a pure reliever, not a part-time swingman/part-time bullpen guy. Gossage’s ERA/FIP split was phenomenal and his K rate of 10.22 was outstanding for an era when strikeouts were not as prevalent.
I’d also like to take a moment to highlight 2013 and 2014 Mark Melancon ranking at 3rd and 5th, respectively, on the all-time list. Not only was the cyborg Melancon a fantastic pitcher in his own right, never drawing attention to himself and just pitching with ruthless efficiency, but he also begat Felipe Rivero. He’s the gift that keeps on giving. Barring a complete collapse in the second half, Rivero can easily slide into the top 5 in single-season WAR and might even challenge Roy Face for 2nd place if he keeps going bonkers.
Next, let’s re-sort by ERA. You can imagine what this is going to look like:
Ah, who could forget ol’ Chick Brandom of the 19-aught-9 Buccaneers. But, holy cow, look at Mike Gonzalez from 2004 in 5th place. Those mid-2000’s are some real dark days in Pirate history, but that is a phenomenal season. Gonzalez immediately saw his BB/9 flare up into the mid 5’s for the remaining two years of his Pirate tenure, but for one shining year he put it all together.
I don’t expect Rivero to keep running an ERA under 1, so Bob Veale and Chick Brandom might still retain the top two spots, but I certainly don’t see him dropping out of the top 10 all-time, either.
We’ll sort by K/9 to see where the fireballer stands in single-season form:
Hey there, Jason Grilli. The Pirates have really had some phenomenal lineage of setup men and closers in this semi-renaissance of the franchise in the past few years with Hanrahan, Grilli, Melancon, Watson, and now Grilli. Rivero is sitting in 12th place, but it’s not unreasonable to think he’ll be in the top 10 by the end of the year.
And finally, this is a newer age stat that won’t encompass every pitcher in Pirate history, although most pitchers in the old-timey days didn’t throw very hard anyway. This is a leader board sorted by fastball velocity, from 2002 to 2017 when the data was available:
The Pirates have had some real blazers over the past 16 seasons, but as of now Rivero tops the charts with a 98.3 mph fastball average. We’ve seen him run it up to 101, maybe a 102 if the gun was true and not hot.
Felipe Rivero is fun to watch. Right now he has that air of inevitability when he enters the game. There’s no way that hitters are looking forward to facing him at this moment in time when he’s throwing triple digit gas and complementing it with 2 to 3 other ‘offspeed’ pitches that are top notch, too. Rivero is going to get real expensive, real quick, as he’ll be entering arbitration this offseason as a Super Two, meaning he gets four bites at the apple. But for now, let’s revel in the fact that we’re watching an all-time great season in progress. Let’s not treat it like 2004 Mike Gonzalez.