For front offices around Major League Baseball, June is an important month. It’s the time to restock your farm system. Scouts and sabermetricians collect copious amounts of information on players, poring over every last detail before drafting a player. So much work goes into scouting the best talent, and yet, even with 40 plus picks, good players slip through the cracks.
Undrafted free agents produce some of the most enthralling stories in baseball; there’s something about making it to the big leagues after being doubted by every team. Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? Some notable undrafted free agents include Darren O’Day, Matt Stairs, Matt Shoemaker, and five time all-star and MVP Larry Walker.
(Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
This past season, a new undrafted free agent burst onto the big league scene.
T.J. Rivera, a New York City native, played two years of baseball at Wallace Community College before transferring to division one Troy University. At Wallace Community College, Rivera’s head coach was Mackey Sasser, the Mets catcher from 1988-1992.
In 2011, Rivera’s senior year at Troy University, he hit .303 despite the NCAA’s introduction of BBCOR bats, which significantly reduced offensive output; college baseball’s run rate fell from 6.96 runs per game in 2010 to 5.58 runs per game in 2011. Even with his impressive offensive showing, all 30 teams passed on Rivera in the 2011 MLB draft. Not once, not twice, but 50 times. 1,530 players were selected, none of them T.J. Rivera.
(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
When Rivera’s former coach Mackey Sassers heard the news, he was astounded. Sasser was captivated enough by Rivera’s ability that after the draft, he recommended him to a scout in the Mets organization. He was signed as a free agent.
Upon being signed, Rivera didn’t have a true position. He bounced all over the infield during his six minor league seasons, even playing a handful of games in the outfield. Without a set position, there was only one constant: T.J.’s bat. From 2011-2016, Rivera slashed .324/.371/.805 in 2648 Minor League plate appearances.
After posting a .909 OPS in 105 games at AAA Las Vegas in 2016, his best professional season yet, Rivera garnered his first big league call up. He didn’t disappoint.
Replacing arguably the Mets most consistent hitter in 2016, Neil Walker, Rivera slashed .333/.345/.476 in 33 games for the Mets, solidifying a position that was shrouded in uncertainty after the second baseman’s injury. He started the NL Wild Card game, too, registering one of four Mets hits off of Madison Bumgarner.
Although Rivera only has 113 plate appearances in the Major Leagues, his ability to hit at every level throughout his career bodes well for him; his worst season came in 2013 when he hit .289 at high-A ball. He’s been remarkably consistent, and I don’t see any reason for that to stop now. Rivera’s high BABIP (.360) might suggest he got lucky in a small number of big league at bats, but it’s actually exactly in line with his Minor League average BABIP of .360.
With Neil Walker the starting second basemen for now, T.J. Rivera will likely be a utility infielder this season. Walker is in a contract year, though, so Rivera may seize the role soon.
After going undrafted, T.J. Rivera is set to make an impact in Major League Baseball.
All MLB data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.
All NCAA data courtesy of Baseball Cube.