By VICTOR FLORES
Alexis Rivera is nicknamed the Baby Panda.
Former Idaho Falls Chukars radio broadcaster Chris Lewis and current broadcaster John Balginy gave Rivera the nickname two years ago. It was inspired by Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval, whose nickname is the Kung Fu Panda.
“He’s a shorter, stout dude who’s pretty quick and has a big swing like Pablo,” said Lewis, now a broadcaster for Boise State. “It’s amazing he’s still there (in Idaho Falls).”
At this rate, Rivera — an outfielder and first baseman for the Chukars — won’t be around much longer.
A new approach at the plate, a mechanical adjustment and maturity have transformed the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Rivera, 21, from a struggling free-swinger into one of the Pioneer League’s best hitters.
“Last year, I chased a lot (of pitches),” Rivera said. “This year, discipline is a lot better. Try to get my pitch to hit instead of the pitcher’s pitch.”
Rivera, who moved from Puerto Rico to Florida when he was 6 years old, was drafted by the Royals in the 10th round of the 2012 MLB draft. He was 18 and fresh out of high school during his first minor league season with the Arizona League Royals, when he hit .341/.413/.477 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 206 plate appearances.
He his numbers fell off the next season — exclusively with the Chukars — at .269/.349/.363 in 240 plate appearances, and they plummeted in 2014, when he hit .198/.275/.271 in 230 plate appearances (183 with the Single-A Lexington Legends, 47 with the Chukars).
“Second year, I tried to do too much,” Rivera said. “Last year, I got moved up and instead of doing what I was doing here, I tried to do way too much.”
Over the last two seasons, he constantly chased bad pitches, another trait of Sandoval’s. Rivera tried to pull the ball, rather than focusing on making good contact.
This year, the Sandoval-esque free swinging has vanished. Rivera focuses on hitting the ball to the center of the field. At the plate, his hands are lower, now level with his shoulders, making it easier for him to start his batting windup when the pitcher starts his.
“Before this year, I was trying to get way too big, instead of just using my hands,” Rivera said. “This year, I try to use my hands, and I have five home runs already.”
Rivera said that before Wednesday’s game versus Ogden. That night, he hit a two-run home run. The following night, he hit a grand slam. Going into Friday’s game, Rivera led the Pioneer League with seven home runs, 24 RBIs and 14 walks. His slash line was .386/.514/.842.
“I can count on one hand, really, him chasing,” Chukars hitting coach Andre David said. “For the most part, he’s got a pretty good feel for the strike zone. He doesn’t panic up there.”
David discussed a Rivera at-bat from Tuesday’s series opener against Ogden. Down 6-5 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, Rivera came up with two runners on. He worked a 3-2 count and fouled three pitches back. Then, he laced a single into right field, scoring both runners.
“He got the big hit, but if he didn’t, for development concerns, it was a good at-bat, ” David said. “We’re not concerned about results here. It’s the process.”
Rivera struggled with process the last two years. Those struggles are gone this season, leading to monster results. Results that will move the Baby Panda up Kansas City’s affiliate chain if he keeps them up.
“My routine’s a lot better than last year, and I’m finally 21,” Rivera said. “I’m a man now.”