My colleague Nick Nelson recently wrote an article about Ryan Jeffers, outwardly wondering if the team mistakenly bestowed principal catching duties onto the former UNC Wilmington standout. While he never explicitly says it, and I would never want to speak for someone else, I walked away from the piece believing that he thinks that the Twins should not assume Jeffers to be a consistent, everyday starter for them unless he undergoes a serious evolution.
Without a doubt, Jeffers’ initial hitting numbers are dreadful, mimicking Tim Laudnerian batting prowess instead of the league-average flirtation we expected from him. His career .202/.280/.378 slash line is dragged down by an even poorer .181/.271/.312 2022 season so far. The Manfred Mushball can’t explain that away. Jeffers’s initial 2020 offensive promise seems to be a mirage; he has failed to sniff even league-average production since that year.
However, there are under-the-hood stats that tell a different story. Dan Syzmborski’s recent Fangraphs article detailing under and over-performers based on his secret “z” stats caught my eye. Scrolling down a little to his “zSLUG Underachievers” list will procure a list of names, including our subject for today: Ryan Jeffers. ZIPS believes that Jeffers should be slugging .441—a number in the ballpark of Matt Olson's (.440) and Freddie Freeman's (.441) production levels, not the Adam Frazier (.309) plateau he currently sits at. Syzmborski’s projection system is his creation, so how it reaches that conclusion is hidden from us regulars, but it’s a good sign nonetheless.
There are other numbers as well. His Baseball Savant page doesn’t reflect un-impeachable elite performance like one sees from an Aaron Judge or a Mike Trout, but it does tell a tale of an unlucky slugger. Jeffers’ xwOBA is .339—right above league average for all hitters. Digging deeper, his barrel rate of 9.0%—a stat that indicates specific instances of a player hitting the crap out of the ball—puts him in elite territory; 26th amongst all qualified batters in MLB. Barrels aren’t an end-all stat—a player like Luis Arraez can be great because of other characteristics—but it is indicative of extra-base damage, and Jeffers’ current production does not reflect how much impact his bat has.
There are other, more subtle numbers as well. Jeffers has tightened his command of the strike zone; his O-Swing % is down to 28.5, while his overall swinging strike rate has plummeted to 9.6%. Believe it or not, he swings at pitches outside the zone at the same rate as Luis Arraez (28.5%), and he whiffs at about the same rate as Paul Goldschmidt (9.5%). His total contact has also vastly improved (72.0% career vs. 78.5% in 2022, around Francisco Lindor territory (78.7%)). Those discipline numbers aren’t elite by any means, but they are average if not above-average in some cases, and average production would be a tremendous improvement for Jeffers.
Jeffers’ walk rate reflects these changes (10.9%, up from 8.6%), while his strikeouts have dipped slightly, but probably less than one would expect (30.1%, down from 34.1%). I believe those punchouts will drop even further, given his improved plate control.
Ryan Jeffers hits the ball hard at an elite level, has improved his plate discipline numbers across the board, and has worse surface-level hitting stats than before. That should change soon. The often-maligned 25-year-old has a good process in place; he has not found the final crucial step in unlocking his potential: luck. Once fortune turns in his direction, Jeffers will find himself as one of the better catchers in the game.