Is Emmanuel Rivera an Answer at 3B?

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Emmanuel Rivera is on a nine-game hit streak that has moved his overall season wRC+ to about league average. That sounds like it is bad, but rookies can take a little while to adjust to the league, and prior to this year Rivera had only 98 plate appearances in the majors, all from last season. The Royals need a third baseman, and we have the rest of the season to see if Rivera can fit in that hole. We are starting to get a better idea of just how likely that will be.

The first thing that really stands out about Rivera is his age. Being a rookie can imply that this is a young guy with some growing to do, but he is already 26, so that is not what the Royals are dealing with. We all know that Whit Merrifield came up a little older, his first half season came in 2016, which was his age 27 season. Merrifield turned into a solid everyday player for the next half decade. Merrifield had an advantage in that his bat had to play mostly at 2B where about two thirds of his starts have come. Third base has a little higher offensive bar to clear.

Emmanuel moved through the minors in fits and starts. There are good stints and bad stints, but finally in 2021 and early 2022 he put together back-to-back solid runs at AAA posting a 144 and 142 wRC+ over a combined 81 games. Vinnie Pasquantino was at a 145 wRC+ in AAA this year, so this is not a bad number to post. Rivera did it by walking some, striking out less than most, and slugging homers and doubles, more than one extra base hit every two games. His strike out rate has stayed reasonably low at the majors, but he is walking less. The hits are starting to come, but the rate of extra bases has not gotten there yet. He has 12 hits in this streak and 8 are singles. In his two stints in AAA he had 45 singles to 47 extra base hits. He doesn't need that sort of ratio at the major league level, but 2/3 singles is probably too many singles.

Baseball Savant has some good news with whether it is possible for him to start showing some more consistent hits and power. His average exit velocity is in the 81st percentile in baseball this year along with above median rates for max exit velocity, hard hit rate, barrels, strike out rate, and he is not chasing out of the zone often. This has led to an expected batting average of .281 and expected slug of .466, which would be like Patrick Wisdom for the Cubs over the past two seasons, but with a lot better hit tool, and that isn’t too shabby. Unfortunately, his BABIP is .270, and I think a lot of it has to do with a relatively low average launch angle, he hits the ball on the ground too much for a power dependent bat. Ground balls are also not your friend when you are relatively slow (40th percentile in sprint speed).

There is one other main problem with Rivera, and that is his defense. The bat needs to come around because he is not going to be a plus defender at third. Statcast and UZR so far have him as a significantly negative defender, though Fielding Bible shows him as more average based on the Fangraphs numbers so far. He is not as bad as Hunter Dozier was at third though, so that is good. Dozier really struggled at third in his three years with significant time there staying in the negative 10+ defensive runs saved range for a full season of play. Rivera looks like he might be more a negative 5 runs sort, so half as bad as Dozier. He lacks range but makes most plays on balls hit near him, so as long as the bat is above average, he might be a decent option.

After looking at all of this I am encouraged a bit. If they can bring Emmanuel’s launch angle up a bit, he seems to have the opportunity to put up decent numbers at the plate as long as he keeps making solid contact. Even a 110 or so wRC+, minus some defensive problems, could get him in the 1.5 to 2 win range for fWAR, and that is around an average everyday player. Assuming some of the younger guys are the real answers to the big bats in the lineup over the next several years, Emmanuel Rivera just might be enough at third to live with.

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