When the Twins made a substantial free agent spending outlay to sign catcher Christian Vázquez last season, it was done in some measure because of the struggles and growing pains of Ryan Jeffers.
After an exciting debut campaign in the shortened 2020 season, Jeffers’ numbers took a nose dive in part-time duties in 2021 and 2022.
Early last season, there were reports that Jeffers had retooled his swing in the offseason with hitting coach David Popkins to eliminate unnecessary movement and help his timing and bat path. The goal was to be a more consistent and well-rounded hitter who would be better able to adapt and adjust at the plate and use the whole field.
ryan jeffers is an interesting breakout candidate for the #mntwins.— parker hageman (@HagemanParker) March 23, 2023
he’s hit the ball hard consistently this spring:
exit velocity/launch angle
‘23 swing ‘22 swing pic.twitter.com/rwAgKL3vIj
Again relegated to more of a backup than a lead role to begin last season, Jeffers responded with his best season yet. His .276/.369/.490 line over 335 plate appearances was good for a .369 wOBA and a 138 wRC+, which was tied with Texas’ Mitch Garver for the best rate of offensive production among catchers with at least 300 PA last season. By the end of the season, Jeffers was the Twins lead catcher and he started all of their playoff games.
With the 2023 season in the books, Jeffers’ top-line results would suggest the tweaks were successful. At the same time, 335 plate appearances of the new approach is a medium-sized sample, at best.
Looking ahead to 2024, with payroll reduction plans potentially putting Vázquez and his $10 million salary on the trade block, it’s worth assessing the staying power of Jeffers’ 2023 adjustments. Do his changes reflect improvement in his underlying skills that might carry over and sustain this level of production going forward?
Just Below The Surface
Let’s start the analysis with another table:
You can see that Jeffers cut his strikeout rate and increased his walk rate last season and then mostly retained those positive developments this year. That’s probably not attributable to his remade approach and swing, but it’s good to see him maintain those.
The other things that jump out to me are his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) numbers, which were very low the previous two seasons but then swung hard to the good side this past season.
That’s a potential concern going into 2024. He probably benefitted from some good batted-ball fortune last year – the league average BABIP was .297 – and it’s fair to wonder how much that bolstered his numbers. To that point, Jeffers’ expected wOBA based on his contact quality, was about 35 points lower than his actual mark.
His career-best Ideal Plate Appearance rate – the share of his plate appearances that resulted in a well-hit ball, walk, hit-by-pitch, or sacrifice – last season was boosted by 10 hit-by-pitches and 6 sacrifices. He’d had just 7 of those combined in his career before 2023, and last season’s 16 was a little more than 12% of his total IPAs.
I don’t know if getting hit by pitches is attributable to the approach change, but coming through with sacrifices very well might be. It’s also the product of circumstances out of Jeffers' control. Jeffers has been Rocco Baldelli’s favorite option to deploy safety squeeze bunts, but that requires the right base-out combinations in place when he comes to the plate. Reduce those opportunities to something more in line with years past and his IPA% mark looks much the same year over year.
Plate Discipline & Swing Decisions
Next, let’s see how Jeffers did at swinging at strikes and laying off pitches out of the strike zone:
He swung at generally the same rate as the previous couple of seasons, but he was less aggressive in the strike zone and went after pitches out of the zone more often than he ever had previously. His ability to make contact when swinging decreased slightly from 2022, but was a few points better than in 2020 and 2021.
Where Jeffers had strike zone judgment – a PitcherList metric that measures The “correctness” of a hitter’s swings and takes, using the likelihood of a pitch being a called strike (for swings) or a ball/HBP (for takes) – that was better than the league average (about 67%) in 2021 and 2022, last season he was below average, as you can see in this year by year comparison:
Next, let’s dig into his metrics when he put the ball in play:
Bear in mind that 2020 was a very small sample – just 36 batted balls – so we can’t draw much from that year. Otherwise, there’s not too much that jumps out here that would explain his new level of production.
He did raise his average and maximum exit velocities, which are both good things. The increase in average exit velocity looks like it’s mostly a product of raising his floor (see 25th percentile column) by eliminating some of his most weakly hit balls. The rest of his batted ball distribution stayed similar to the past, as you can see from the other columns. To that point, Jeffers’ median exit velocity last season was 92.5 mph, up from 91.6 in 2022, but right in line with the 92.4 from 2021.
Combining this data with the plate discipline information from the previous table does seem to illustrate Jeffers' evolving approach. The data indicates he prioritized discipline and making contact in 2022, at the expense of some damage. That was after having a more swing-and-miss and damage-heavy profile in 2020 and 2021. Last season, with the revamped approach, the data suggests he found some kind of more well-rounded, middle ground between the two.
You might wonder if the slight increase in exit velocity helps to explain the increase in BABIP from the earlier tables, and it might on an individual level. But we can probably temper that line of thinking a bit with research that has shown that exit velocity has almost no correlation with BABIP in the aggregate.
Similarly, Jeffers’ profile of batted ball types hasn’t changed much. The increase in ground balls last season is probably noise but could be a reflection of his evolving approach. He also did not see a spike in line drives that might explain the BABIP increase.
I won’t subject you to yet another table or graph for this, but it’s worth also noting that his spray chart data was more or less unchanged as well. He hit the ball to the same fields at roughly the same frequency as he had previously.
Jeffers might have hit the ball slightly harder, more consistently, but not in any kind of dramatically different way that would give reason to think he’s unlocked a new, much higher level.
Lastly, let’s look into some of Jeffers’ situational data, namely how he performed against different pitch types and ball-strike count situations.
On the positive side, he held his own against breaking and offspeed pitches in a significantly better way than in the past:
Also on the positive side was Jeffers’ production when he had the count advantage. When he was ahead, he had an expected slugging of .701 and an xwOBA of .533, both career bests by ~80-90 points.
That suggests his new approach allowed him to better cover the range of what pitchers might attack him with and be positioned to take advantage when he got into good opportunities.
What Carries to 2024?
We just went through a bunch of Jeffers’ data. What did we learn?
Jeffers had his best season in the majors which coincided with a swing overhaul. He maintained gains in strikeouts and walks that started in 2022. He benefitted from some good batted ball luck and leaned into getting hit by pitches. He chased pitches out of the zone more than he ever has previously, and found a more balanced mix of making contact and swinging and missing. He hit the ball a little bit harder, a little bit more consistently than the previous year, and did so with a generally similar batted ball profile as years past. He also did better against secondary pitches and when he was ahead in the count.
What conclusions should be drawn? Did Jeffers really experience a breakout?
I think it's a mixed bag. I don’t see evidence to support the idea that his 2023 results are reflective of the hitter he will be going forward. A .369 wOBA and 138 wRC+ are probably too high of expectations, given his batted ball fortune and the lack of significant changes in his contact quality and plate discipline that would explain it. I wouldn’t bank on him hitting like Mitch Garver again, and I’d argue that framing his 2023 as a “breakout” is probably off base. Expectations should be tempered.
But there are positive developments, like his strikeout and walk numbers, contact rate, and situational improvements that would indicate he’s progressed from what we saw in 2022. Which is to say nothing of the massive improvements he also made defensively, especially in controlling the opposing running game and in his throwing.
There’s also something to be said for a hitter feeling confident and good about themselves at the plate, which Jeffers seemed to experience last season. He told Aaron Gleeman in August, “I feel confident with my mechanics, and that leads me to be able to really stick to a good approach. I’m not worried about my mechanics at all, so I can really lock into what I want to do every at-bat and how I want to attack a guy.”
Altogether, the data suggests it’s reasonable to expect Jeffers to be an above-average offensive producer, especially for a catcher — think something in the 105 to 115 wRC+ range — with an average-ish combination of defensive skills.
Altogether, that makes him a very valuable option behind the plate and worthy of supplanting Christian Vázquez on the depth chart. Like pitching, though, there is no such thing as enough catching in an organization and the Twins would be wise to ensure they have another starting capable option on the roster in 2024, not as a critique of Jeffers but as a guard against the inevitable churn that comes with that position.