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T.J. Rivera made the most of his opportunity in 2016

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The infielder’s offense and versatility make him a frontrunner for a bench role in 2017.

MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

On August 10, the Mets were in the midst of a free fall. The team had fallen nine games out of the division lead after losing nine of its last 13 games and was badly struggling to score runs. After a series of injuries sidelined virtually the entire left side of the their infield—David Wright, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jose Reyes—the Mets called up 27-year-old T.J Rivera from Triple-A.

The Mets signed Rivera as an amateur free agent in 2011 after he went undrafted that year. A Bronx native and Troy University graduate, Rivera worked his way through the Mets’ farm system, producing big offensive numbers at every stop along the way. Starting in Single-A, Rivera posted a wRC+ of 143, 139, 144, and 142, respectively, during his last year at each minor league level (Single-A, High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A).

Overall, Rivera hit an impressive .324/.371/.434 in 625 games as a minor leaguer. He thrived in the Mets’ system despite not fitting the mold of a typical Alderson-era Mets prospect. Rivera was a contact hitter with a low strikeout rate (12.5% K%), who did not draw many walks (5.7% BB%) or hit many home runs (just 35 in 2,648 plate appearances). Nonetheless, Rivera made it work, as his offensive prowess earned him a call-up to the majors.

Rivera carried this approach—and the success that it produced—to the major leagues in 2016. In his 33 games with the Mets, Rivera hit .333/.345/.476 (119 wRC+), with three home runs, 16 RBIs, 10 runs scored, four doubles, and a triple. Rivera walked at a miniscule 2.7% rate, while striking out in just 15% of his plate appearances, which is well below league average.

Rivera’s batted ball rates show him to be a line drive (23.9% LD%) and ground ball (42.4% GB%) hitter who likes to pull the ball (41.3% Pull%) and hit it up the middle (38% Cent%). Although his very high .360 BABIP might suggest that he benefited from good luck in a small sample size, he carried a .361 BABIP in his minor league career.

Rivera gave the Mets’ offense a boost and came up with a number of timely hits. At the same time, he provided the Mets with much-needed depth as a utility infielder. After playing the bulk of his 49.0 innings at third base when he first got called up, Rivera shifted to second base, where he played another 170.2 innings and which he eventually took over for an injured Neil Walker. While he had a couple of rough games at third, Rivera played adequate defense at second, where he seemed to make all of the routine plays, did not commit an error, and—albeit in a very small sample size—rated as an average defender (-1 DRS, 0.5 UZR).

Despite the small sample size, Rivera’s 2016 performance should earn him a chance to compete for a spot on the Mets’ bench in 2017. As it is constituted today, the Mets’ infield will likely feature Lucas Duda at first, Neil Walker at second, David Wright at third, and Asdrubal Cabrera at short. Jose Reyes will likely be used as a roving utility infielder who sees a significant amount of time at third base, while Wilmer Flores finds his way into the lineup against lefties.

This arrangement leaves Rivera’s role on the team a bit unclear. Remember, though, that all six of those infielders have struggled with at least one significant injury over the last couple of years, and some have had trouble consistently staying on the field. As a result, it seems likely that Rivera will find opportunities to start for the Mets in 2017. He has certainly earned that opportunity based on the offensive potential he flashed during his first two months in the big leagues.