Twins Daily 2020 Awards: Rookie of the Year
Image courtesy of Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY SportsThere is always much to learn for a rookie first entering the big-league ranks, but it's a steeper curve for catchers. They not only participate in games, but are essentially asked to run them. Catchers must signal for and interact with every pitch, and (as framing metrics illuminate) they can impact game outcomes in deeply subtle ways.
Mix in the circumstances that surrounded Jeffers when he joined the Twins in mid-August, and the crash course grows all the more daunting. Think about it: replacing a reigning Silver Slugger (and former Twins Daily Rookie of the Year), on a team battling for first place, with championship aspirations, amidst a sprint of a season just five weeks away from ending.
Jeffers had to gel with a new pitching staff, acclimate to major-league competition, and perform at an extremely high level, despite the lack of any opportunity to sharpen up in minor-league games.
It's a great deal to ask of a 23-year-old who had played 167 games in the minors since being drafted in 2018, including just 24 above Single-A. Jeffers was up to the task.
For some context, Mitch Garver had played 508 games in the minors before he debuted in the big leagues. Even Joe Mauer, who rocketed through the Twins system as a No. 1 overall draft pick and No. 1 overall prospect, played 277 games in the minors before first reaching the Show.
Jeffers, a former second-round pick out of UNC-Wilmington, was barely two years removed from being drafted when the Twins called him over from St. Paul's alternate site on August 20th. The front office's decision to tab him as replacement for an injured Garver was somewhat surprising, given the availability of a familiar and experienced option in Willians Astudillo. But it wasn't THAT surprising, if you've ever heard Twins people sing Jeffers' praises.
The young backstop wasted no time making his presence felt. He started in the first game after he was called up, and delivered a go-ahead RBI single in his first MLB at-bat. From that point forward, Jeffers was a mainstay.
A DEPENDABLE WORKHORSE
After Jeffers was called up, Garver made only 21 more plate appearances, the same number as Alex Avila. Minnesota's veteran backstop depth evaporated halfway through the campaign, making Jeffers an absolutely vital asset. He started 18 of the team's final 35 games behind the plate following his promotion, including nine out of 13 at one point while Garver was sidelined and Avila was hampered.
Through it all, Jeffers gained confidence from the pitching staff while proving a reliable battery partner. In 162 innings behind the plate, he was charged with zero errors and only one past ball.
Not only did he grade out well defensively according to these traditional statistics, but by advanced metrics as well. Statcast him had as a 90th percentile pitch-framer, and Baseball Prospectus' FRAA pegged him as above-average. Granted, this is all based on a small sample, but it jibes with the rep on Jeffers from the minors, and what we saw with our own eyes as he smoothly received pitches and stole strikes consistently.
For his part, Jeffers takes a lot of pride in this aspect of his game. "Every pitch is an opportunity for me to change the count," he told our Seth Stohs in a special Twins Daily live-stream recognizing him as Rookie of the Year. "I love making a hitter mad."
Offensively, Jeffers was more solid than spectacular, but that's still an accomplishment on its own from a rookie who specialized in defense behind the plate. He slashed .273/.355/.436 with three home runs in 62 plate appearances, posting a .791 OPS that ranked fifth on the team among players with 50+ PA. The only higher finishers: Nelson Cruz, Byron Buxton, Josh Donaldson, Eddie Rosario.
There was nothing fluky about the rookie catcher's production. He showed excellent discipline, and an ability to crush his pitch. Jeffers generated a Barrel % of 13.9%, higher than any qualified Twin other than Miguel Sanó and Cruz. His average exit velocity was above all teammates save for Sanó, Donaldson, and Garver. Jeffers swung at only 26.7% of pitches outside the zone, which is significantly better than average, and lower than all Twins except LaMonte Wade Jr., Donaldson, Garver, and Avila.
On both sides of the ball, Jeffers look like a comfortably seasoned MLB veteran. For that reason, he was our pick for Twins Rookie of the Year – but only by the slimmest of margins.
As you can see in the ballot results below, Jeffers actually received fewer first-place votes than Randy Dobnak (12-to-9) but managed to narrowly edge him in overall points, 50-to-48. That's about as close as it gets. (Twitter was a little more decisive.) Either one would've been deserving. Why did Jeffers get the nod?
Part of it is recency bias, I'm sure. Dobnak was sensational over the first half, and on a legitimate AL Rookie of the Year path, but his play cratered after that and he was in the minors when the regular season concluded. Jeffers, meanwhile, came along right around the time Dobnak dropped off. He was a fixture the rest of the way and into the playoffs.
There's also the fact that, unlike Jeffers, Dobnak wasn't an entirely new commodity. We'd already seen him look great over 28 innings in 2019. Novelty makes an impression.
But really, speaking as a Jeffers-first voter, I think it comes down to this: While Dobnak ended up having a good year in a year where many pitchers had good years – on the Twins, and across the Central divisions generally – Jeffers came up and outperformed most others in a lackluster lineup. His comparative edge in OPS+ (118) to Dobnak's ERA+ (108) is telling. And, while Dobnak's performance may have been above-average on balance, there's no downplaying the extreme and dramatic plunge that stamped his ticket. It doesn't negate his outstanding early performance, but it does cast serious doubt on the sustainability.
Others who deservingly received votes: Jorge Alcala, Brent Rooker, and Cody Stashak. (Had we polled people after the playoff series, Alex Kirilloff might've received a down-ballot vote or two.)
Here’s a look at the ballots from our 23 voters.
Seth Stohs: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Ryan Jeffers, 3) Jorge Alcala
Nick Nelson: 1) Ryan Jeffers, 2) Jorge Alcala, 3) Randy Dobnak
John Bonnes: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Ryan Jeffers, 3) Jorge Alcala
Tom Froemming: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Ryan Jeffers, 3) Jorge Alcala
Andrew Gebo: 1) Ryan Jeffers, 2) Jorge Alcala, 3) Randy Dobnak
AJ Condon: 1) Ryan Jeffers, 2) Jorge Alcala, 3) Brent Rooker
Cody Christie: 1) Ryan Jeffers, 2) Randy Dobnak, 3) Jorge Alcala
Cody Pirkl: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Jorge Alcala, 3) Ryan Jeffers
Cooper Carlson: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Ryan Jeffers, 3) Jorge Alcala
Jeremy Nygaard: 1) Jorge Alcala, 2) Randy Dobnak, 3) Ryan Jeffers
Lucas Seehafer: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Jorge Alcala, 3) Ryan Jeffers
Matt Braun: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Ryan Jeffers, 3) Cody Stashak
Matt Lenz: 1) Ryan Jeffers, 2) Jorge Alcala, 3) Cody Stashak
Matthew Taylor: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Ryan Jeffers, 3) Jorge Alcala
Matthew Trueblood: 1) Ryan Jeffers, 2) Randy Dobnak, 3) Jorge Alcala
Nash Walker: 1) Ryan Jeffers, 2) Randy Dobnak, 3) Jorge Alcala
Nate Palmer: 1) Ryan Jeffers, 2) Randy Dobnak, 3) Brent Rooker
Patrick Wozniak: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Ryan Jeffers, 3) Jorge Alcala
Derek Wetmore: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Ryan Jeffers, 3) Jorge Alcala
Steve Lein: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Ryan Jeffers, 3) Jorge Alcala
Renabanena: 1) Randy Dobnak, 2) Jorge Alcala, 3) Ryan Jeffers
Ted Schwerzler: 1) Ryan Jeffers, 2) Jorge Alcala, 3) Brent Rooker
Thiéres Rabelo: 1) Jorge Alcala, 2) Randy Dobnak, 3) Ryan Jeffers
Ryan Jeffers: 50
Randy Dobnak: 48
Jorge Alcala: 35
Brent Rooker: 3
Cody Stashak: 2
How would your ballot look? Leave a comment and make your case.
Previous Twins Daily Rookie of the Year Winners
2015: Miguel Sano
2016: Max Kepler
2017: Trevor Hildenberger
2018: Mitch Garver
2019: Luis Arráez
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