Heading into the 2016 season, the New York Mets were blessed with an embarrassment of pitching riches. But they were also blessed with two young catchers projected to be frontline players in Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki. While the pitching staff has succumbed to injury bringing down four of the franchise’s top five power arms, the catching situation has been muddled by disappointing play and slow progress. So in has stepped, Rene Rivera, a journeyman backstop who inked a minor league deal with the Mets days before the season began.
“My agent and I we talked about it and we just wanted to look for an opportunity to be in the big leagues again and the Mets were interested,” said Rivera, who was called up from Triple-A Las Vegas after d’Arnaud went down with a strained right rotator cuff three weeks into the year. “They wanted me to come here and I feel like this was the right place.”
Rivera, who is known for his defensive prowess, is now the team’s most used catcher, having wrestled playing time away from d’Arnaud and Plawecki. He has found a niche that will get him in the lineup at least every five days thanks to becoming Noah Syndergaard’s personal catcher. The 33-year old has successfully thrown out 36 percent of attempted base-stealers in his big league career, and he consistently draws well-above-average framing marks from Baseball Prospectus – on the season he is at 100 called strikes gotten on pitches with less than a 25 percent chance of being a strike, according to Mark Simon of ESPN.com. But that’s not something he’s thinking about.
“I really don’t think about that. I never called pitch framing; I always say you have to catch the ball the right way. You have to catch the ball the right way,” said Rivera, who played in 68 games for the Mets in Triple-A when the organization was affiliated with Buffalo in 2009. “I got a good catching coach back when I was in Seattle, still working there I think, Roger Hansen. He taught me a lot. He taught me how to receive the ball well, how to stay behind the ball well and that’s what it shows.”
Offense will never be Rivera’s strong suit. Yet, in just 181 at-bats, he has six homers and 26 RBIs. To put that in perspective, d’Arnaud and Plawecki have combined for five homers and 25 RBIs in 376 at-bats. Throw in his Rivera’s work on defense, and it’s not surprising that a supposed backup catcher has started 54 games – the Mets are 33-21 in those games. Getting a spot in a big league lineup has taken some work, but there have been plenty of twists and turns in a career that began when the Seattle Mariners drafted the Puerto Rican native in the second round in 2001.
At one point, Rivera was Seattle’s catcher of the future and he came up to the majors for a cup of coffee in September 2004 at the age of 21. However, by the end of 2007 the defensive-minded catcher washed out of the organization after appearing in just 53 big league games. Following his time with Seattle, Rivera spent time in the minors with the Dodgers and Mets.
There was always seemingly room somewhere for a good catch-and-throw guy, but in the spring of 2010 Rivera was out of a job and options. His agent, now his ex-agent, told him there was no interest and Rivera’s last hope to keep playing was to suit up for a semi-professional team in Toa Baja, located 20 minutes from his hometown of Bayamon.
“The agent I was working with in that time we didn’t have much communication so I basically went to that 2010 offseason without an agent and it was tough to get a job like that,” Rivera told me in the Mets locker room. “It was a tough moment.”
Former big leaguer Von Hayes, manager of the independent league Camden Riversharks, reached out to the catcher remembering him from Seattle, and offered him a job. Rivera, making $1,500 a month, hit seven home runs in three weeks with the Riversharks before being signed to a minor league deal by the Yankees.
“The one thing I always have is that I never give up,” Rivera said. “I always follow what I want to do with my life and I got the chance to go to Independent Ball that year, signed with the Yankees, go to Triple-A and Double-A with the Yankees and work my way back to the big leagues.”
Rivera got back to the majors with the Twins in 2011, filling in for injured All-Star Joe Mauer. Then came yet another minor league contract with the Padres but he finally cracked his first opening day roster with the team in 2014. He rewarded San Diego with a .252 average and 11 homers in 329 plate appearances, but he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason.
In an effort to save three-fourths of his $1.7-million salary for this season, the Rays released Rivera this spring after a modest 2015 campaign. Today, he has the ear of all the pitchers on the Mets’ staff, most of whom rave about his pitch-calling and knowledge of opposing hitters. He can relate to all manner of minor-league funky stories about long bus rides and dingy hotels. He also may soon know what it’s like to start a playoff game. It’s been a long, arduous ride, but for Rivera it has all been worth it.
“Was it worth it? Hell yeah. I think that when you sign at 17 years-old you got one goal, is play baseball and make it to the big leagues and you have the chance to play the greatest game ever and the opportunity to be in the big leagues, the opportunity to just play ball,” Rivera says. “It’s nothing better than to play what you love and what you’re passionate with and that’s what it’s been with me. I’ve been passionate of this game and every year I have fun with what I do and enjoy every moment.”