The book on Ryan Jeffers when coming out of the UNCW was pretty straight forward. Scouts knew that he possessed big power, but questioned his ability to make consistent enough contact to warrant an everyday role at the MLB level. While his play in the minor leagues suggested that the concern was unwarranted, it has risen anew after he posted a mediocre .211 batting average through his first 111 MLB games.
Jeffers burst onto the scene during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season due to a combination of fortuitous luck as well as the betrayal of Mitch Garver at the hands of his own body. After splitting the 2019 season between High-A and Double-A — he slashed .264/.341/.421 with 14 home runs in 103 games — Jeffers was among the prospects selected to train in St. Paul following the cancellation of the minor league season. He was called up in late August after Garver landed on the injured list with an intercostal strain and remained with the team until the conclusion of the season.
The former UNCW Seahawk performed admirably in 26 games, hitting three home runs and slashing .273/.355/.436, good for a 120 wRC+, bolstered by a .364 BABIP, while providing surprisingly solid defense behind the plate, particularly in regard to pitch framing. His performance left many wondering if he would soon supplant Garver, perhaps as soon as the coming offseason, as the Twins’ everyday starting catcher.
The Twins, obviously with similar questions wafting through their heads, began the season with Jeffers and Garver splitting a roughly equal amount of time in the starting lineup. However, the decision, while sound in theory, turned out to be poor in practice as it wound up negating both of their strengths, namely hitting for power, while intensifying their weaknesses, striking out. Jeffers was eventually demoted to Triple-A while Garver spent more time on the injured list. (Garver absolutely crushed after his slow start and finished the season with a 137 wRC+ and .875 OPS in 68 games while Jeffers — 89 and .670, respectively, in 85 — did not.)
Even upon his return to the majors after posting a .786 OPS with St. Paul, Jeffers’ season never really got on track offensively, which was likely the result of multiple factors.
For starters, Jeffers wasn’t unable to do much against breaking balls, as he hit .136 with a 36.1% strikeout rate. His barrel rate against benders dropped 22 percentage points year over year while his fly ball rate nearly tripled.
However, for as bad as his numbers against breaking balls were, they were more or less commensurate with his performance during 2020 (.133, 37.5%). Where Jeffers struggled the most was with making contact against fastballs, particularly those up in the zone.
Overall, opposing pitchers offered fewer fastballs during Jeffers' at-bats — 54.7% of all pitches in 2021 compared to 60.5% in 2020 — and even when they did, he hit worse, posting a .228 batting average this past summer versus .313 throughout the previous. His strikeout rate against heaters also jumped an astronomic 10%, from 28.9% to 38.3%.
Jeffers also ran into a bit of poor luck as his BABIP dropped precipitously from an egregious .364 in 2020 to a relatively unlucky .269 in 2021. While the sample sizes are incredibly small, teams did increase the frequency in which they shifted against Jeffers from 3.2% in 2020 to 7.5% in 2021, which may have influenced his BABIP numbers.
In many ways Jeffers’ struggles during the 2021 season can be summed up similarly to that of Trevor Larnach: Former top prospect with a track record of mashing fastballs suddenly lost the ability to mash fastballs. Luckily for the Twins, as is also the case with Larnach, Jeffers is only 24 years old and has not yet played 162 MLB games, meaning he has plenty of time to make adjustments.
If he is able to do so, the Twins likely possess their starting catcher for the foreseeable future. If not, Jeffers may find himself on the trade block sooner rather than later.
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