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Pirates

Change is good for Pirates reliever Rivero

| Thursday, March 2, 2017, 7:27 p.m.

LAKELAND, Fla. — Felipe Rivero sometimes has to stifle a giggle on the mound when he sees batters flail at the pitch Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage admiringly calls a “Bugs Bunny changeup.”

It's no laughing matter to hitters, though. One of just three left-handers who cracked 100 mph last season, Rivero savors the reaction when he follows his blistering four-seamer with a diving, 88 mph changeup.

“The (batters) start looking up and shaking, stuff like that,” Rivero said. “I don't want to laugh on the mound, so I keep it to myself.”

An above-average curveball and slider round out Rivero's unusual four-pitch arsenal. The fastball usually gets the most hype — who doesn't gape when those triple digits flash on the JumboTron? — but the swing-and-miss change is what makes Rivero a beast.

“It's amazing,” Searage said. “That Bugs Bunny changeup that he has is a real good complement to his 97 mph fastball. The bottom falls out like a splitter. Rotation is just like his fastball, so it's really hard to pick up and then you're already committed.

“When he keeps his head on target and lets (the pitch) do its thing, it is really an above-average changeup.”

It might even be a better than above average. Last winter, MLB.com analyst Mike Petriello wrote Rivero's changeup “might have been the most unhittable pitch in the game last year.”

Rivero, acquired from the Nationals as part of the Mark Melancon trade, last season threw 267 changeups, which drew 138 swings. Fifty-seven percent of the time, the batter connected with nothing but air. No other pitcher had a better whiff rate with his changeup.

“The changeup is a weapon,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Any time you can get a pitch to look like a fastball and back off 10, 12 or 15 mph from your fastball, it's very difficult for a hitter to cover that.”

The Tampa Bay Rays signed Rivero a couple of weeks after he turned 17 in 2008. It was Rays pitching coordinator Jorge Moncada who switched Rivero from a four-seam to a two-seam changeup grip.

“He was like, ‘Here, throw it this way,' and ever since then it's been like that,” Rivero said. “It's always been effective.”

When Rivero was a skinny kid in the minors, his changeup had not reached its full potential. That's because there wasn't yet much difference in velocity between his change and his fastball.

“When I first signed, I was throwing (the fastball) like 86 mph,” Rivero said with a laugh. “Also, I was like 150 pounds back then. Now, I've got some weight and that helps me.”

The Rays developed Rivero as a starter, then traded him to Washington in February 2014. The Nationals immediately moved him to the bullpen.

“In the second month that I was a reliever, I was throwing 98-99 mph, so I was like, ‘I'm not starting any more,' ” Rivero said. “I don't want to go back to starting. For me, the adrenaline you have coming in late in the game is not the same (as being a starter). I want to stay in the bullpen for a long time.”

Going into this season, Rivero and right-hander Daniel Hudson will share duties in the seventh and eighth innings as setup men for closer Tony Watson. That all could change by midseason, though.

Watson will be a free agent next winter, which makes it likely the Pirates will try to trade him before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. Hudson is next in line for the closer's job, but Rivero is being groomed to someday fill that role.

“In the future,” Rivero said. “Now, it's up to Watson. I'm not worried. I know it's going to come one day.”

Rivero paused and smiled.

“I'll be here.”

Pirates reliever Felipe Rivero pitches during a spring training game at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates reliever Felipe Rivero pitches during a spring training game at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.
Pirates reliever Felipe Rivero pitches during a spring training game at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates reliever Felipe Rivero pitches during a spring training game at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.
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