Take one look at him, and you see the stature of a terrifying power hitter. Take one listen to him, and you hear one of the most focused, self-aware 20-year old kids you’ll ever come across.
That’s what it’s like to meet Rey Rivera, who started playing baseball at age 4 in the streets of Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. While his right-handed father, Reynaldo Sr., used to hit baseballs off a tee; Rey would stand on the opposite side and swing left-handed to show that he could do it too. Squaring off from his father is how Rivera learned to hit left-handed before growing into a 6-6, 250-pound frame and becoming the 2017 Junior College National Player of the Year at Chipola College.
“He’s more of an introverted guy, which you wouldn’t expect from someone as big as he is,” said West Michigan manager and former Tigers great Lance Parrish. “[Rey] keeps to himself and works hard to hone his craft whether he’s playing first base, the outfield or focusing when he’s the DH, but he’s doing well.”
Rivera was drafted almost a year ago to the day with the Tigers second-round pick at No. 54 overall in 2017. Few people expected Detroit to grab the native of West Palm Beach, FL, who was ranked the No. 150 prospect in the draft, according to MLB Pipeline. Helping Chipola Junior College, a school with alums such as Jose Bautista and Russell Martin, to a National Championship last season, Rivera was the most feared hitter in the lineup and posted “video game” numbers at the plate:
.438 BA, 20 HR, 77 RBI, 40 BB, 43 K, .534 OBP in 59 games.
Rivera, who typically goes by “Rey,” has been a man on a mission during his full-season introduction to the Tigers minor leagues. His 2017 professional debut at short-season Connecticut didn’t go as planned, hitting just .187 with two home runs and only 26 RBI in 52 games. Despite the slow start, the Tigers thought enough of Rivera to send him to Class-A West Michigan to make his full-season minor league debut, and he’s proven the choice to be wise. At the end of May, Rivera was hitting .283 with four home runs and 25 RBI in just 36 games – with numbers already superior to those he accumulated with Connecticut.
“His power adds a dimension to our ballclub that every team desperately needs,” Parrish said. “He’s a guy with a pretty good idea of what he’s doing. There are adjustments he’ll want to make as he moves up, but he’s at a good place right now and is always learning.”
Wearing the number ‘14’, you’d wonder if his jersey is a bit small for him. That’s because it probably is. Typically, the lower the number, the smaller the jersey, so Rivera’s willingness to wear a number like ’14’ has a certain significance. “I realized as a kid that when you add up all the letters of my name ‘Reynaldo Rivera,’ they add up to ‘14’,” he said. Another reason is his birthday is June 14, when he turns just 21 years old in a few days.
Rivera’s offensive game features effortless power to all fields. Rarely do you get a big swing from Rivera, but his natural ability allows him to drive the ball in a way most can’t. It almost reminds you of when a golf instructor tells someone to “let the club do the work.”
While the approach has worked to a degree of success, Parrish would like to see Rivera load up and let it rip every-so-often, “When he decides to attack a ball, he needs to really go after it,” Parrish said. “Once he does that, he’ll start to realize the great potential he has. That’s what the JD Martinez’s of the world have learned to do.”
Another notable aspect of his game has been the ability to hit effectively regardless of whether he’s ahead or behind in the count. Typically, power hitters are dependent on the count to be successful. If they’re ahead, they can take a huge swing. When behind in the count, many hitters struggle, but that hasn’t been the case with Rivera. The lefty slugger holds nearly an identical batting average (.260) hitting behind in the count as he does when he’s ahead (.261). He’s also shown enough patience to force pitchers to throw him strikes, frequently finding ways to crawl out of 0-2 holes at the plate. At the time of publication, Rivera has drawn 17 walks in 36 games.
“Last year, I was too anxious with two strikes,” Rivera said. “I wanted to work on being mentally sharp and calm at the plate. I try to think of a comfortable situation away from baseball, like being at the beach or somewhere like that. Honestly, the count doesn’t matter too much. What matters is how comfortable you are at the plate right at that moment.”
Defensively, Rivera is still learning the tools of the trade. Most comfortable at first base, Rivera has also been receiving instruction in the outfield. That said, it’s easy to imagine the 6’6” frame of Rivera hauling in high throws from infielders around the diamond on an everyday basis down the road. “Since I was a kid, I’ve always been a first baseman,” he said. “I normally feel more comfortable in the infield, but I put in just as much time there as I do the outfield.”
So, what changed so drastically to help Rivera improve his batting average by nearly 100 points despite jumping to a higher level?
“I was working more on the mental side of things and trying to be more positive,” Rivera said. “I wanted to get through the everyday grind because you don’t understand it until you go through it. This year, I was able to focus on “How am I going to handle it?”
People tend to forget that professional baseball is typically the first time that players begin to face any type of adversity. From their beginnings in recreation baseball to the point in which they get drafted, players almost never find themselves in lengthy slumps or discovering the need to make sense of what’s going on in their heads. Combine that with the physical wear and tear of a full college season, and your first year in pro baseball can be a grueling transition.
“Last year was exhausting physically, but you learn that you can go through things body-wise if you’re mentally prepared,” Rivera said. “I played 60 games before being drafted last year, so once I went pro, I realized I needed to be able to handle the adversity that comes with being fatigued mentally and physically.”
This season, Rivera has admitted that he’s taken things a bit slower – such as waiting longer to start throwing a baseball to keep his arm fresh. He also took batting practice on a regular basis but focused on quality over quantity to stay in-touch with his swing. Rivera’s slow-play has yielded fruitful results with even more room to grow. When you have a skillset like his, the potential is enormous.
“He possesses a gift with his power that many guys wish they had,” Parrish said. “He just needs to figure out how to use it.”
Right now, his talent is simply scratching the surface, but once he figures out the nuances of his offensive game, he could be the next must-see power bat in the Tigers system.
Follow Dan Hasty on Twitter at @ThatDanHasty!