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Comparing Ryan Hanigan and Rene Rivera, the catchers in the Wil Myers trade

Who is Rivera and why did we trade for him?

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays have reportedly completed a blockbuster trade, sending former Rookie of the Year Wil Myers to San Diego, along with a ton of other moving parts. I'd like to focus on one small slice of the deal -- the Rays just swapped their starting catcher, Ryan Hanigan, for fellow catcher Rene Rivera.

Your first thought, upon hearing the possibility of the Rivera-Hanigan do-si-do, was likely, "Who?"

Danny profiled Rivera as a Rays target earlier this winter, but if you looked him up you found that Rivera is a 31 year old journeyman with 673 major-league plate appearances.

The Rays will be his eighth team. This leads to an obvious follow up question of "Why?"

The initial rationalizations I came up with were not satisfactory when I went through the same thought process, so I followed-up with something that's not really a question:

"Danny, I will eat my hat if the Rays trade Ryan Hanigan for Rene Rivera."

That wasn't a metaphor, either. It was exactly what I sent to Danny when he first floated the trade rumor my way, and I was referring to a very literal and specific hat that I'm rather fond of.

So like most of you, I immediately disliked this aspect of the trade. I am, however, about to defend it.


Ryan Hanigan has been a pretty good offensive player -- for a catcher -- over the course of his career. He's walked more than he's struck out (11.9% to 10.7%), and he owns a career on base percentage over .350. He knows the zone and he sticks to it; he fights off pitches; he battles. He's enjoyable to watch.

Rene Rivera has had a much less successful offensive career at the plate. He's had trouble finding a spot in the major leagues, so these "career" numbers cover only 673 plate appearances (about one full season for an every-day starter or two for a standard catcher), but he's walked 6.1% of the time while striking out in 24.5% of those plate appearances. His career on base percentage is .279. That's ugly.

But here's the thing. There's more to baseball than taking a walk. Ryan Hanigan has almost no power, and he's not about to develop some. His great plate discipline is undercut by a paltry .085 career isolated power. Rivera is no Giancarlo Stanton, but he's better than Hanigan, with a .130 career ISO. That means that the two catchers are closer offensively than the perception around them would suggest.

Moreover, Ryan Hanigan will be 34 next year, and is coming off multiple seasons impacted by injuries. Rene Rivera will be "only" 31, and just had his best offensive showing, with a 114 wRC+ in 329 plate appearances for San Diego. The Steamer projection system (which is better at understanding this data than humans who couldn't pick Rivera out of a lineup, like me) thinks they'll produce very similarly next year in terms of offensive value, even if they arrive there in different ways.

Here are those 2015 projections:

Ryan Hanigan 10.5% 13.6% 0.230 0.319 0.318 0.286
Rene Rivera 6.8% 21.2% 0.233 0.290 0.361 0.289

Pitch Framing (and other, less-important defense)

Mike Fast first broke it into the public domain. With Fast now in the Astro's front office, Ben Lindberg has picked up the pitch framing flag beautifully over at Grantland. We've talked about it a lot here, and I think that while most reasonable people now accept that pitch framing is both a real and measurable skill, there's a few holdouts on this site who would like it to go away.

It's not about to.

One of the reasons for trading for and then signing Ryan Hanigan to an extension last season was that, like Jose Molinahe's also good at pitch framing, but Rene Rivera is better (probably, SSS caveats, etc.). Pitch Framing data is now available, using two different calculation methods, both on StatCorner and on Baseball Prospectus.

By the Baseball Prospectus numbers, Molina has been worth 31.6 framing runs per 7000 chances (roughly what a full season of playing time would look like) over the course of his career, while Hanigan has been worth 16.3 runs per 7000, and Rivera 18.0 runs per 7000.

Recently, though, Hanigan's framing numbers have declined, perhaps due to injury or age, while Rivera has improved on a mediocre 2011, his only other year in the books. Last season specifically, Hanigan produced at a rate of 12.7 runs per 7000, while Rivera bought his pitchers 22.1 runs per 7000. Rivera was simply better.

Jumping over to the StatCorner numbers, Hanigan was worth only an extra 0.23 calls per game through his framing in 2014, while Rivera was worth an extra 1.75 calls per game -- fourth best in baseball behind Hank Conger, Molina, and Christian Vazquez.

Of course, there's more to catching than pitch framing.

Baseball Prospectus calculates contributions from pitch blocking as well, also using PITCHf/x data. Molina was a terrible blocker and Hanigan was a great one. Rivera is somehwere in the middle.

Consider the scale of the skill, though. Hanigan, a master pitch blocker, saved his teams a bit under three runs a season. Molina, a terror, lost six. That makes blocking a more visible but less important skill than framing.

As for controlling the running game, both Rivera and Hanigan have gunned down 38% of the runners who have attempted to steal on them.


So if Hanigan and Rivera have similar offensive projections, and are similarly strong defensive catchers, why would the Rays prefer one over the other? There's Hanigan's worrisome injury history, for one, but this is also a case where the money really does matter.

The Rays signed Hanigan to an extension that potentially locks him up through 2017. Rivera will also be under Rays control for the next three years, as his inability to stick in the majors means that although in his 30s, he's just now reaching arbitration (where Matt Swartz projects him to make $1.3 million).

Ryan Hanigan Rene Rivera
2015 $3.5M $1.3M
2016 $3.7M $1.95M*
2017 $3.75M/$0.8M^ $2.6M*

^Team option/Buyout

*I've calculated the second and third arbitration year assuming a 40/60/80 model, which may or may not be accurate. Also, those years are not guaranteed.

I know we'd all like an owner who's willing to shell out and build the best team money can buy, but that's not how this works, even in the fantasyland of baseball. And in the real world, paying less for the same amount of something is smart. It's not just about $tu's wallet. Paying less for one commodity means that the Rays have more room in their budget (whatever that might be) to buy wins elsewhere on the field.


I'm not evaluating the entire Wil Myers trade yet. It's very big and we'll have more to say about all of the pieces involved. You don't come to DRaysBay just for the hot takes, though, so take this conclusion for what it is: an assessment of what Matt Silverman just did for the Rays catcher position over the next couple years.

At the top of their game, Rene Rivera has a lower 90th percentile projection than Ryan Hanigan, but we're unlikely to get that best-case scenario from either of them. Their mean projection on offense is similar, though, and Rivera is younger and has a less-troubling injury history.

On defense, they're comparable over their careers, and if you consider recent seasons as being more predictive of current ability, there's a case to be made that Rivera is better.

Finally, the contract matters. Rivera costs less, and if he doesn't pan out (or gets injured), the Rays aren't on the hook for anything in 2016.

Ryan Hanigan has been a good baseball player, and it sounds like he's a really nice guy, too. He's great to watch behind the plate. When Matt Moore spikes a curve into the dirt, there's no one in this league I'd rather have back there than Hanny. He also works with pitching staffs better than most.

All of that is true, but it doesn't change the fact that Rene Rivera is trending upward, and has a decent chance of outproducing Hanigan over the next couple years while making less money and carrying less risk.

That makes the catcher section of the Wil Myers trade at least a wash, with plenty of pathways for the Rays to come out ahead in 2015 and beyond.