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  • Were the Twins Wrong About Ryan Jeffers?


    Nick Nelson

    Every step of the way, this Minnesota Twins front office has believed in Ryan Jeffers more than basically anyone outside of it. At times, their faith has been rewarded.

    But with Jeffers sinking into quicksand during his third major-league season, it's valid to question whether their extreme confidence is misplaced, and what that would mean for the franchise.

    Image courtesy of Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

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    Jeffers was widely considered a reach when the Twins selected him 59th overall in 2018 – the second draft overseen by Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. Per Puckett's Pond, Baseball America's big board had Jeffers ranked 295th among draft prospects and MLB.com's 200-player list didn't have him ranked. 

    Although the North Carolina native had posted monster numbers during his collegiate career at UNC, he had a rep as a bat-first catcher without the receiving chops to stick behind the plate, negating his defensive premium. The Twins saw it differently.

    They overdrafted Jeffers to ensure he wouldn't escape their grasp. They moved him aggressively through the minors, even as he failed to post truly extraordinary numbers. In the COVID season, Minnesota called Jeffers up from the alternate site, despite his having played only 24 total games above Double-A to that point. 

    To his credit, Jeffers seized the opportunity and made a great impression. While filling in the very big shoes of an injured Mitch Garver, the 23-year-old delivered a positive impact on both sides, posting a 119 OPS+ while flashing his vaunted framing skills on the big stage. Twins Daily named him Twins rookie of the year.

    The 2021 season was much more of a struggle for Jeffers. Pitchers began to exploit his lack of discipline at the plate. He batted .199 with a .270 OBP, and five times as many strikeouts as walks. Base runners increasingly exploited his inability to control the run game, stealing 46 bases on 59 attempts. 

    Despite his sluggish sophomore campaign, the front office doubled down on Jeffers during the offseason, trading away two years of Mitch Garver and replacing him with Gary Sánchez in a walk year. The message was clear: Jeffers is our future behind the plate.

    Sure enough, the Twins ran Jeffers hard early on. He started every game in the opening series, catching the first two and playing DH in the third. In fact, Jeffers got three starts at designated hitter in the team's first dozen games, even with Minnesota carrying only two catchers. 

    It's clear they expected Jeffers to hit. He hasn't. 

    Jeffers opened the season in a brutal 4-for-27 skid, with zero extra-base hits. He then had a brief surge where he launched three home runs and four doubles in an eight-game span. Since then: 11-for-78 (.151) with one double, one home run, and 25 strikeouts in 26 games. Overall, Jeffers is slashing .174/.264/.303 – only six qualified big-leaguers have a worse OPS.

    He's consistently been an automatic out, cratering rallies and sapping an otherwise productive lineup. And what's more: Jeffers isn't exactly tearing it up on the defensive side to offset his hitting woes. 

    He still rates well as a pitch framer, and it's clear he is stealing pitchers an extra strike here and there. (Although I'll note: notorious butcher backstop Gary Sánchez is also checking in above-average this year.) But Jeffers is being exposed for his throwing inadequacies like never before. 

    For the season, Jeffers has successfully stopped only three of 28 aspiring base stealers. On Sunday, the Rays went borderline Matthew LeCroy on the bit, running at will as the Twins catcher helplessly cast tardy throws to second and third. 

    Granted, Jeffers has often not gotten help from pitchers when it comes to stopping runners – Cole Sands on Sunday being a prime example – but it's a pretty clear weakness in his game. And again: it's not an unexpected one. His deficiencies in quickness and footwork have been noted in scouting reports over the years. They're part of why draft analysts doubted his future behind the plate.

    For Twins fans, it's now impossible not to doubt Jeffers' future behind the plate for the Twins. Framing skills aside, he's a 25-year-old with more than 500 plate appearances in the big leagues and a .655 OPS to show for it. The requisite signs of improvement aren't there. Jeffers looks lost and it's not inconceivable he could find himself ticketed for a Triple-A reset, should this trend persist.

    If Jeffers can't change course and resuscitate his wayward game, what does that mean for the future of the team at catcher? Garver is gone, as is Ben Rortvedt. The system is sparse on catching talent, which was noted in our preseason prospect rankings even before that depth was wiped out. 

    This front office might be confident to the point some would describe as hubris, but they're not overly sentimental. At some point, they'll come to terms with the reality of Jeffers if it becomes undeniable. What happens then?

    In short, the Twins will either need to find a free agent (the upcoming market is ... not great) or a trade partner. OR ... they'll need to convince Gary Sánchez to stick around. It's not the most exciting proposition given his track record, and even in his resurgent rebound this year he's been pretty average. Still probably good enough to have some leverage in a weak catching market this offseason.

    So far, the team's unwavering faith in Jeffers has not paid off. But there's still time for him to prove them right. They could sure use it.

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    I agree that his bat has been a rally killer.  As stated almost an automatic out.  He can steal strikes and his framing is very good IMO.  He stole strike 3 for Pagan in the 9th on Saturday and ended the game but if he can't throw anyone out at 2nd that really hurts.  Not sure what the answer is but if this is who he is the Twins are going to need to do something different.

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    I think the FO was less worried bout his ability to throw out runners, because for years teams just would not run.  However, as MLB is looking to bring stealing back into the game, with different rule changes, changing size of base, and appearing to decrease the power of the ball, that liability is starting to show it may be a huge issue.  I am no catching expert, and it may be just his arm is not as strong, or his set up to frame pitches cost him some time, or could be our pitchers do poor job too.  However, watching some teams starting to run all over on him may lead to need to change.  Since he is not providing any offense, really anyone can fill in for him if they can throw guys out.  

    I would point out that very few catchers are good on both sides, but right now Jeffers is not doing great on either, and as MLB eventually gets the robo ump the pitch framing will be pointless, and throwing runners out will be a bigger issue. Maybe he will change things up when that happens to help with the runner situation, but right now, I would agree he is not an asset behind the plate overall.  

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    They actually made two bets.  The short-term bet (current year) was that they could find a replacement for Garver.  I see it as they neither gained nor lost anything this year.  It's really a long-term question at this point.  They have the rest of the year and next off-season to improve the catcher position in 2023 and beyond.  They could sign a free agent to be the primary catcher and use Jeffers as a back-up. 

    Do we have a guy in the system?  Is Hamilton's breakout sustainable?  Alex Isola has a 900 OPS at AA.  Could he get promoted to AAA for the 2nd half of the season and audition for the job on the big club.  They also will be in a position to go sign a FA catcher next year.  I see it as the most obvious opportunity to improve the team where position players are concerned.   

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    The bat has been the most disappointing thing by far.  He has been a solid pitch framer and and can block pitchers pretty well, that has made up for his stiffness and lack of big arm behind the plate.  
     

    It is mid June and hitting sub .200 without a ton of walks or power is terrible!!!

     

    I think you end up rolling with him and Sanchez the rest of the season but if it doesn’t pick up this off-season we’ll be looking for 2 new catchers.  

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    Ouch. I've been kind of ignoring him and letting him fly under the radar, but when you lay it out like that makes me want other catcher's names in the plans. 

    In the short term, I'm grateful for Sanchez (really didn't expect I'd ever be saying that back when he was acquired.) Maybe this is the spot they should be look to upgrade when trade season arrives.

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    As for the pick no one picked in the 2018 second round has more WAR than Jeffers. Only 7 of the 35 have reached the majors. One of the catchers picked after him, Will Banfield, is hitting .208 in A+. Banfield was given an over slot 1.8 million compared to Jeffers’ 800K. Josh Breaux (over slot 1.5M) his hitting .224 in AA. It seems like the Twins made a very good pick with their reach.

    It is really hard to find and develop a catcher. I would be patient with his bat. If the Twins value throwing out runners more they can change his positioning away from one that is designed to frame the plate.

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    I don't know that they were wrong about him exactly. I've never been high on him, and I liked Garver a ton, but if their assessment was that Garver's days as a catcher were about over, they look to be right on that mark. As for Rortvedt, his bat has always been worse than Jeffers', so I don't know that they were exactly "high" on Jeffers so much as  had even less confidence in Rortvedt.

    I mean, out of the three catchers last year, Jeffers future behind the plate still looks the brightest by far. Which, obviously isn't saying much.

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    Jeffers is what he is:. A below average major league catcher that can't hit major league pitching.  He's poor on defense as well. I don't see much for improvement.  Catching needs to be upgraded.  I also believe framing is a little overrated.  How do you measure balls that he steals for strikes?  And if it is possible, and not just totally subjective to steal pitches, it must follow that it is just as easy to lose strikes to balls based on framing.  To me if a catcher is pulling in pitches they must be balls and competent umpires realize that.  But competent home plate MLB umpires seems far fetched.  Anyway Jeffers is just an overrated and over hyped catcher hitting .174

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    For this year, We better hope he improves his hitting because his arm isn't improving, ever.

    Thank god Sanchez has played above expectations.

    As for 2023 and beyond, upgrades will be tough to find. There's pretty much nothing in next year's FA class. 

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    I think in order to be a regular catcher, he will need to make some significant adjustments at the plate as he chase way too much, and simply can't drive the ball with any consistency.  I hope I am wrong, and as others have suggested, he still has time to develop, but I think he is going to be a platoon catcher, starting maybe 60 games and playing against teams that don't run much and against pitchers he can handle.  I think his DH days are over.

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    He's definitely an issue, and I think you are right that he might be sent down to work on hitting with less pressure (and real incentive). It's not great he's 25, but it also isn't too late to get better if the talent is there.

    Trips down have helped Buxton, Kirilloff, Larnach, and even Sano (temporarily) just to name some recent folks. Going down, and getting to stand in the box and just watch lefties pitch basically gave Denard Span a 10+ productive year.

    The minors might not fix him, but Godoy can certainly catch as well as Jeffers, and displayed a decent batting eye earlier this year, and there is no better time than now to see if they can get Jeffers right. I can't see how the team would be worse in the short run.

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    55 minutes ago, Whitey333 said:

    Jeffers is what he is:. A below average major league catcher that can't hit major league pitching.  He's poor on defense as well. I don't see much for improvement.  Catching needs to be upgraded.  I also believe framing is a little overrated.  How do you measure balls that he steals for strikes?  And if it is possible, and not just totally subjective to steal pitches, it must follow that it is just as easy to lose strikes to balls based on framing.  To me if a catcher is pulling in pitches they must be balls and competent umpires realize that.  But competent home plate MLB umpires seems far fetched.  Anyway Jeffers is just an overrated and over hyped catcher hitting .174

    Here's how you measure. It's not subjective. Jeffers is top ten among 60 qualified catchers. Sanchez is 28th. 

    https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/catcher_framing?year=2022&team=&min=q&type=catcher&sort=4,1

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    There's some optimism on his statcast page. They've got him with an xSLG of .444 which means there's bad luck in his .303 SLG. He barrels the ball pretty frequently too at 8.7 barrels/PA. There are only 25 MLB hitters better than that. For catchers he's 14th in hard hit %. So if he ever does fully figure it out he could be in the top 5 offensively. 

    It's really tough to make sense of his chart on statcast. Whiff and chase rates are solid. BB% is very good. But he's a disaster on K%. Overall, it looks like he long runs into an average major league catcher with a hot streak likely on the way. And he can frame. I'm not really buying the alarm sound on him at this point. 

     

    image.png.bc0327d53e080d70895e2057a6d95900.png

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    1 hour ago, Mike Sixel said:

     He's 25? I'm not worried yet. I'm not thrilled either. It is surprising, as he was viewed as a bat first guy. 500 at bats is nothing . Good thing they didn't give up on Torii that fast.

    The average catcher right now is batting .210 with a .630 OPS.    Jeffers career OPS is .650.   I agree it is too early to make conclusions.   Garver's batting .206.    I believe Rortvedt has been hurt, plus I don't miss looking up how to spell his name every time I comment on him.    

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    1 hour ago, Mike Sixel said:

     He's 25? I'm not worried yet. I'm not thrilled either. It is surprising, as he was viewed as a bat first guy. 500 at bats is nothing . Good thing they didn't give up on Torii that fast.

    Catching is not outfield.

    I am amused by all the : Well the analytics show blah, blah, blah.

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    7 minutes ago, RpR said:

    Catching is not outfield.

    I am amused by all the : Well the analytics show blah, blah, blah.

    I literally have no idea your point here at all. 

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    I like Jeffers but I haven't seen him as our future catcher. I've always thought Garver as our now catcher and Rortvedt as our future catcher, I advocated as Jeffers as the one to trade because of his much greater trade value and find a Castro type to back Garver until Rortvedt is ready for MLB hitting . I didn't like his arm and he's been one of many victims that have adapted to the moonblast mentality and has been one of the last to over come this.

     I'm not totally crazy how Jeffers handle pitchers. Yet I still like him much better than Sanchez in this aspect.

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    2 hours ago, Trov said:

    I would point out that very few catchers are good on both sides, but right now Jeffers is not doing great on either, and as MLB eventually gets the robo ump the pitch framing will be pointless, and throwing runners out will be a bigger issue. Maybe he will change things up when that happens to help with the runner situation, but right now, I would agree he is not an asset behind the plate overall.  

    He's not only a pitch framer.  He grades out pretty well at blocking and game calling as well.  Defensive metrics for catchers, as flawed as they are, see him as among the best in the game.  His 5.6 RAA at Fangraphs ranks 6th in the majors right now.

    Maybe the run game is coming back, but as offensive levels have been heating up this year teams that have been running more might still rethink that a bit.  I think it continues to be a de-emphasized part of the game.

    Even with different versions of the automatic strike zone being used in the minors, I don't think it makes it to the majors for a while, at least through his arb-eligible years.

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    29 minutes ago, 2wins87 said:

    Maybe the run game is coming back, but as offensive levels have been heating up this year teams that have been running more might still rethink that a bit.  I think it continues to be a de-emphasized part of the game.

    It seems though with the proposed moving of second base and larger bases that MLB is trying to encourage more running. Whether that actually ends up correlating is anyone's best guess at this point.

    For now though the running worries me a bit. The Rays just proved they can take extra bases that led to 2 or 3 runs yesterday.  Running gets de-emphasized because it usually ends up being an unneeded risk. With Jeffers there doesn't seem to be much of a risk.

    The rest of his defense is above average and he seems to call a good game, so if he hits I think the Twins could live with the poor stolen base stats. However, if he continues to hit like an average catcher, then they might as well put someone there with better overall defense.

     

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    I was a believer in Jeffers so I am very disappointed at this time.  I wonder if we spent so much time at framing that we forgot hitting and throwing.

    I am anxious for the automated strike system to eliminate this nonsense about framing (stealing) strikes. 

    Somehow I think he will get his bat going enough to not be a total liability, but right now with runners on base or a good pitcher on the mound he looks completely lost.  

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    I think it's clear the Twins didn't expect Jeffers to perform well, especially after last season. The front office wouldn't have gone out and traded for an arbitration eligible, fairly expensive catcher like Sanchez if they expected Jeffers to perform.

    The front office clearly did hope Jeffers would make the necessary adjustments at the plate, though, otherwise they wouldn't be giving him so many starts.

    Unfortunately, it does look like Jeffers' time as a starter is ticking down. I've made my previous prediction that Jeffers will have until the All Star Break before the Twins relegate him to expected career backup or MiLB roster filler. The Twins will likely move to sign Sanchez to a middle term 3-ish years contract if Jeffers doesn't turn it around. That said, it certainly does look like Jeffers has been unlucky so far so there may be a nice swing back in his favor.

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    We had a crazy number of players with the opportunity to step up and lock down a roster spot for the next few years.  Kirilloff / Larnach / Miranda / Celestino / Lewis and Jeffers as position players.  Ryan / Winder / Smeltzer / Duran / Jax / Cano / Moran and Megill among pitchers.  Several of them are looking very good and we have two-thirds of a season for Jeffers and others to step up.

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    He's still young and a work in progress, but he's been very disappointing this season. He's nearly an automatic out at the plate, and his defense is average at best. I think everyone expected him to take a big step up this year, and it went the other way. If your catchers strongest attribute is his pitch framing, then you're in trouble. There are plenty of other catchers that can do that, and hit better too. It's real tough to carry a guy that hits around .175 as a regular player. I'd definitely like to see an upgrade behind the plate. 

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    17 minutes ago, Mike Sixel said:

    500 at bats and people want to throw him to the curb. Unreal.

    Who said this? The most any have said is maybe he needs a bit of time in AAA to reset his bat. I see no one saying to kick him to the curb.

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