Felipe Rivero hasn't looked right for three weeks. The Washington Nationals' 24-year-old flamethrowing lefty's nightmarish June may have finally reached the boiling point in Saturday's 7-3 loss to the San Diego Padres. Rivero began the eighth inning with a 3-1 lead, but failed to retire any of the six batters he faced. Each of them came around to score as the Nats let a very winnable game get away. However, the problem wasn't that Rivero let the game get away so much as how he let it get away from him. Let's take a look at that fateful eighth inning before we discuss how sending him down wouldn't just be overreacting to one poor outing.
Batter #1: 1 pitch single to Alexei Ramirez
This may have been Rivero's best pitch of the night. It was a well-spotted fastball (95.4 MPH) that Ramirez just turned around and smacked through the 5.5 hole. Oddly enough, it was also probably the hardest-hit ball that he allowed in the inning.
Batter #2: 2 pitch single to Alexei Amarista
This was the poor BABIP luck single. Some may say that Myers' double later in the inning was a bit BABIPy as well, but this was the one batter that Rivero faced where you could truly call the result unlucky. Amarista popped a curveball just above the knees into shallow left field. Michael A. Taylor will probably kick himself a bit when he sees the replay. He didn't seem to get a great read off the bat and also seemed to adjust/slow up a bit at the last second. Most center fielders don't make that play, but Taylor probably does if he gets a good read. Alas, he didn't. He got a glove on it, but couldn't reel it in.
Batter #3: 4 pitch walk to Jon Jay
This was a truly unacceptable piece of big league pitching. Rivero has had his struggles with left-handed hitters all season long, but this is something that absolutely cannot continue to happen at the big league level. Jon Jay is the Padres' leadoff man. He's a veteran player who has always been a solid average hitter and is smart enough not to get himself out by chasing. He's not a guy who you really expect to hurt you with big extra base power (.098 ISO, .113 this season). The guys behind him (Wil Myers and Matt Kemp) are! Rivero not only walked Jay on four pitches. He walked Jay on four pitches that weren't even close to the strike zone. This loaded the bases in front of the Padres' best hitter.
Batter #4: 2 pitch double to Wil Myers
I didn't actually see the play when it happened, as I was driving home from work. As I was listening to Charlie and Dave, they seemed a bit surprised at how aggressively the Padres' baserunners handled this play. It wasn't the sharpest of line drives, but it was a liner (as opposed to Amarista's bloop) that was perfectly placed in left center. Unlike the Amarista play, Taylor had an amazing jump and almost got to it, but it bounced just in front of him and caromed off of his glove to allow Jay and Myers to take the extra base as well. Myers hit came on an 87.8 MPH changeup that wasn't particularly well located (about four inches from being middle-middle).
Mike Maddux visited Rivero prior to this at bat. I would hope that the reason there was a visit from the pitching coach rather than a change was because Blake Treinen just wasn't ready. To be fair to Dusty, this inning got away from Rivero very quickly (just seven pitches to the first four hitters), so there wasn't a lot of time to get the backup plan working. Still, after Rivero had just walked Jay on four pitches that weren't even close, it's hard to justify leaving him in to face the Padres' (far and away) best hitter with the bases loaded.
Batter #5: Four pitch intentional walk to Matt Kemp
There's nothing to see here. At least he didn't throw any of the intentional balls away? I will point out that this was Matt Kemp's eighth walk of the season (in 292 plate appearances). Three of those eight walks have come in this series. Treinen walked him on Friday night. Roark walked him on Thursday.
Batter #6: Four pitch grounder to Brett Wallace. Error on Rivero's throw home
Hands down, the at bat against Wallace saw Rivero's best pitching of the night. He started him with a slider down and away (in the zone). Then he busted him in with a fastball. He got Wallace to chase a curve well off the plate on the first 0-2 pitch, but Wallace just got a piece of it. The next pitch that was put in play was a slider middle-middle, but it was an easy grounder right back to Rivero. It was exactly what a pitcher is hoping for in a bases loaded, no out situation.
However, Rivero bobbled the ball and overthrew it to the plate after recovering. Wilson Ramos couldn't corral it. A good throw probably results in a fairly routine 1-2-3 double play with Wallace, a pretty slow runner, at the plate.
Mercifully, this ended Rivero's night. Blake Treinen (finally) entered and wasn't much better. Treinen walked in his first inherited runner and then allowed a two run single to Yangervis Solarte before settling in. In truth, the damage had already been done. Let's chart the location of all of Rivero's pitches (the intentional walk to Kemp doesn't show up on Brooks Baseball) last night.......
We see thirteen pitches above. Rivero threw six pitches that were actually in the strike zone. Four of those six pitches were put in play. He actually got two called strikes that were off the plate (strike one to Amarista and strike one to Myers). Only Wallace saw pitches in the strike zone that didn't result in a ball in play. The four misses to Jay were way off the plate. Two of the six pitches that were over the plate were pretty much middle-middle. His control was terrible. His command in the zone was pretty bad as well, despite the one really well-located fastball that Alexei Ramirez just beat him on to begin the inning.
Felipe Rivero's performance in June
This was Rivero's seventh appearance in June. In those seven appearances, here's his total line:
Since it may seem like an outing as horrific as Rivero's performance on Saturday could skew those numbers a bit, let's look at each of his June appearances individually.
Rivero has had seven outings since the beginning of June. The longest of those outings saw him retire four hitters. He's allowed at least one run in five of those seven appearances. He's allowed multiple runs in four of those seven appearances. He's walked at least one batter in five of those seven appearances. Rivero generally doesn't look confident attacking big league hitters right now... particularly lefties (see: Jon Jay plate appearance Saturday).
The problems with lefties
Rivero's struggles against left-handed hitters have been so well documented over the past month that it feels like I'm beating a dead horse here. That doesn't mean I'm just going to ignore them, though. In all honesty, it's hard to explain....
Why is it hard to explain? I included 2015 for a reason. Looking on his minor league page at Baseball Reference makes his struggles with left-handed hitters even more baffling. Looking over his splits as he came up through the minors (predominantly as a starter), Rivero's numbers didn't exactly scream "LOOGY!" They did, however, show a left-handed pitcher who had moderately better splits against left-handed hitters. They generally hit 25-30 points lower against him in the minors as he worked his way through the system, which is a fairly typical platoon advantage.
Last season, Rivero showed little to no platoon split. He allowed a little more damage in terms of extra base hits to right-handed hitters, but limited hitters from each side of the plate to a .198 average and walked just eleven hitters all season. Having a lefty who is capable of getting hitters out from both sides of the plate is tremendous, and Felipe Rivero can be that guy! Unfortunately, right now he appears to either have no consistent plan of attack or confidence against them.
Is overuse to blame?
Given who the Nationals' manager is and his reputation for shredding arms from his days in San Francisco, Chicago, and Cincinnati, is overuse to blame a bit here? It's safe to say that Rivero's usage hasn't been beneficial to his performance. Looking back through the season....
- Rivero has pitched on back to back days nine times (three days in a row once, which counted for two of those).
- He's pitched three times in four days six times (last night's outing is included there).
For a LOOGY (facing one or two batters), I wouldn't really put much stock in those numbers. That's the life of a LOOGY. You're generally facing the opposing team's best lefty in a big spot any time there's a close game, but you're also usually only facing one or two batters. Felipe Rivero is not a LOOGY, nor has been used as one in his outings. He's faced at least three batters in 27 of his 34 appearances. He's faced at least four batters in 16 of his 34 appearances.
For a veteran reliever, I might worry a bit. Still, a veteran has had years of adjusting to the quick prep-time and throwing in short bursts out of the bullpen. They may have more mileage on the arm, but they're also more comfortable with what it takes to be ready to go on back to back nights... or three times in four nights. A 24-year-old who was generally a starter for his entire career until last season doesn't have that same comfort zone.
Rivero's fastball is still popping the glove at about the same velocity it was earlier in the year. The late life and movement haven't looked to be there as much as they were earlier in the season, which is likely a product of overuse. It could also be a product of a prolonged slump and/or the lack of confidence that comes with it. Most likely, it's a combination of both.
How can Rivero get that confidence back?
I've used the word confidence several times. An awful lot of that has to do with the Jon Jay plate appearance, which I've also harped on quite a bit. This could have just been a complete loss of control for four pitches, but they all missed so badly that Rivero looked like he was terrified of throwing a strike (with two on and nobody out) to Jay. Again, Jay is a guy with 31 career homers in 2952 career plate appearances. He's still a pretty good hitter who you don't want to put the ball on a tee against, but he's not a guy who strikes fear into opposing pitchers. If you can't come close to throwing a pitch in the strike zone against Jay in that spot, you don't belong in the major leagues.
Dusty Baker has shown a ton of confidence in all of his players this season. In many cases, this has paid off in spades. The Nationals' bench hitters have been unreal all season long, and it's hard to believe that Baker's faith in those players to produce isn't part of the reason for that success. His confidence in letting his starters escape jams even in the later innings may end up hurting down the line (see: overuse above), but it hasn't hurt much yet. While there have been a few times when the starters have coughed up a late run, they've generally escaped their own jams and thanked Dusty in the postgame for letting them work through it.
With that said, Baker has continued to show a lot of faith (too much?) in Rivero. Despite his poor performance over the past month, Baker continues to go to him in big spots late in ballgames. Rivero continues to struggle. While part of the reason Baker keeps going to him may be due to the dearth of established late-inning relievers on the Nats, continuing to send Rivero out there in big spots when he's struggling may kill his confidence altogether. If Rivero's going to remain in the big leagues, it's probably time to throw him out there (less frequently?) in a few lower leverage spots to see if he can rebuild his confidence.
Ultimately, it seems like the best plan may not be to let Rivero work through his issues at the big league level, though. While the Nats have established a nice six game lead in the standings through mid-June, it remains likely that just about every game they play is going to have a meaningful impact on the standings. A trip down to Syracuse could allow Rivero to pitch in lower pressure situations and focus on working through his current problem with lefties. He can worry more about process by going down to Syracuse for a month (?) while being less concerned with a bad result or two.
A trip to Syracuse certainly wouldn't mean that they're giving up on Rivero; nor should they. Baker's confidence in his players and skills as a manager of people (rather than the calculative tactician I'd hoped the Nats could have hired this past offseason) makes him the ideal person to explain that the organization still has faith in Rivero.