Ryan Jeffers considers himself lucky, all things considered.He's back in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, Lexi -- they got married in December -- and an 8-month-old Labradoodle named Yogi. And he's soaking up quality time he wouldn't normally have this time of year, when he would have been on
Ryan Jeffers considers himself lucky, all things considered.
He's back in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, Lexi -- they got married in December -- and an 8-month-old Labradoodle named Yogi. And he's soaking up quality time he wouldn't normally have this time of year, when he would have been on the road, likely with Double-A Pensacola in the Twins system. He does have access to Coastal Athletics facilities nearby his former school at UNC Wilmington, where he's able to lift, hit and catch just like in the offseason -- albeit with only one or two other trainees at a time due to coronavirus-related distancing.
"For me, it's more of continuing to build off everything's that gone right so far," Jeffers said. "There's not one area of my game where I've felt I definitely need to do better at. I need to continue to grow in all facets. I've nailed down a routine that I built during Spring Training. I've been refining that. They have one of the pro batter machines with the projector screen and a pitcher and everything. I've been able to really work on timing and different pitches and different sequencing. We can sequence it up so it's fastball, curveball, changeup mix, and it'll randomize it. I've been able to get almost as game-like as you can get in a batting cage. Staying as game-ready as I can for when we get that call."
All of that's important because before the baseball season was put on hold in mid-March, the Twins' No. 6 prospect was on one of the most upward trajectories of any catcher in Minor League Baseball. With so much demanded of backstops in their season and game preparations, it could have been easy for Jeffers to lose all that momentum as March turned to April and April prepares to turn to May.
Think of this. Jeffers wasn't ranked among MLB.com's Top 200 prospects going into the 2018 Draft, despite posting OPSes above 1.000 and reaching double-digits in homers in each of his two springs as the Seahawks' full-time catcher. (ESPN.com had him at No. 99, Baseball America ranked him at No. 295, and FanGraphs was the high group at No. 77.) Minnesota topped even the rosiest of rankings by taking the right-handed slugger 59th overall in the second round. (It helped that he signed for $800,000, a bit lower than the $1.14 million tied to the slot.) He started his first full season as the Twins' No. 16 prospect, ended it at No. 9 and was entering his second full campaign just outside the top five in the quality system of the reigning American League Central Division winners.
The reason for his rise has been the same as the reasons used by the doubters before his entrance into pro ball.
"The teams that liked me in the Draft liked what I could do behind the plate," Jeffers said. "The teams that didn't like me high didn't think I could catch. There were still a lot of doubts even after I got drafted and my first season about me not sticking. I've always had the goal to be a Gold Glove catcher. That's something I've always set my sights on. That's never changed."
It helped that Jeffers -- who stands big for a backstop at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds -- may have been drafted into the right organization at the right time. At first, the Twins' brass, led by then-Minor League catching coordinator Tanner Swanson, let the second-rounder frame pitches in whatever way he was comfortable as a means of evaluating where his tools stood. At the time, that meant the traditional both-knees-up, catch-it-in-a-crouch positioning. Maybe occasionally sticking out the left leg to get a little lower in the zone, but that was as far as it went. Slowly over time, the Twins introduced more and more framing techniques into Jeffers' preparation behind the plate in hopes that catching the ball at the correct angles might steal Rookie Advanced Elizabethton or Class A Cedar Rapids pitchers some extra strikes.
Come the North Carolina native's first Spring Training, he had fully bought into the new training.
"I loved it," Jeffers said. "I'm a bigger guy, so those stances have really helped me to get in a better position to receive the baseball. I didn't catch a single pitch last year with both knees off the ground. I kinda took it and really ran with it. Swanson and Michael Thomas, our new catching coordinator, were really good with teaching that side of it and letting us find what works for us, where the little nuances are that make us feel more comfortable. It's been more and more you catch with those stances the more comfortable you get, and you can really see how much they work by looking at your receiving scores after the game.
"It's more finding the right angles that feel comfortable with your legs, learning how to pair yourself with different pitch types, different pitch movements, different pitchers. There are so many ways you can set your body up when you're on a knee. Really learning how to pair that with what's coming at you."
Those catching metrics were downloaded automatically into Twins backstops' phones or iPads after each game, allowing Jeffers and others who don the tools of ignorance to quickly identify where they were and weren't getting calls. With that information in hand, Jeffers continued to find the stances that enabled him to steal low strikes in particular. Once the Twins' internal numbers and even those of other organizations started to reflect his improving defense, his public-facing prospect ranking began to shoot up during the 2019 season since it was becoming clearer he didn't need to move over to first base.
The former UNC Wilmington star carried that work into the offseason and Spring Training, where he was a non-roster invitee to Major League camp for the first time. Getting a chance to work with potential future teammates such as José Berríos, Jake Odorizzi and Kenta Maeda, Jeffers understood he not only needed to establish relationships quickly with the big leaguers, but impress upon them that he could be a reliable defensive catcher at the same time.
That work continued until the day Spring Training was canceled on March 12. Jeffers wasn't officially reassigned to Minor League camp before returning home to North Carolina, though as a non-roster invitee, he didn't have to be optioned back like a member of the 40-man roster. Since moving back from Fort Myers to Wilmington, he's been able to work in bullpens with former college teammates, each of whom has made it clear that they feel they're throwing to a much-improved target.
"We have that unique relationship where we can truly be honest with each other," said the Twins catcher. "I talk to them about what I see. They talk to me about what I see. For me, I'm working the receiving aspect of it, making the pitchers feel better, talking them through what's happening. ... They can tell how better I receive the ball at the bottom of the zone. There's no wasted movement. My timing is really good. They can tell. They shoot me compliments every once in a while."
The defensive improvements wouldn't be as notable if Jeffers wasn't still standing out offensively, so the bat remains a significant asset.
He produced a .344/.444/.502 line over 64 games between Class A and Rookie Advanced in his first pro summer, notably carrying his impressive strike-zone discipline and above-average power over from the college ranks. That continued in 2019, beginning at Class A Advanced Fort Myers, where Jeffers batted .256/.330/.402 with 10 homers over 79 games in a pitcher-friendly environment. His 120 wRC+ was seventh-best among all Class A Advanced catchers with a minimum 300 plate appearances, behind some much bigger names like Luis Campusano (148) and Miguel Amaya (122) and ahead of others like Sam Huff (117) and Ronaldo Hernandez (104).
The right-handed slugger got even better following a July 25 promotion to Double-A Pensacola. Jeffers hit .287/.374/.483 with four homers over 24 games with the Blue Wahoos and added two more roundtrippers during a five-game stint in the Southern League postseason. Between both stops, Jeffers finished with a 127 wRC+, eighth-best among Minor League catchers with at least 400 plate appearances in 2019. That's all the more impressive considering he did it while striking out in only 20 percent of his plate appearances, bucking the trend of big boppers who trade dingers for K's.
"I've always really tried to find as many barrels as possible," Jeffers said. "Looking at barrel percentage and exit velocity, those are the main things I look at statistic-wise. Honing in that consistency to barrel pitches. I'm strong enough that if I find barrels, my power will come. … My swing is going to naturally provide the lift, provide the power. Put the barrel on the ball and good things will happen. Pretty simple approach."
The Twins certainly seemed impressed with Jeffers' upward trajectory throughout the season.
"I think fans will love him," Alex Hassan, Minnesota's director of player development, told MiLB.com in November. "I think pitchers will love him. He's a hard worker, does everything we ask -- can hit, can take some walks, makes contact. I think Ryan has a bright future."
It's a path that seemed primed to take Jeffers to the Twin Cities at some point in 2020, even with Mitch Garver, Alex Avila and Willians Astudillo also on the catching depth chart. Like everything else in baseball, that ascent is on hold until the game can safely figure out a way to get back again. Until then, Jeffers will remain in his home state, facing pitching simulations in the cage and catching the real-life versions in bullpens -- all the while knowing he's becoming the well-rounded catcher few predicted on Draft Day 2018.
"For me, there's nothing I can do about this pause other than stay as ready as I can," he said. "Spring Training went really well. It was really nice to build those relationships with those coaches and those players. It's nothing but excitement for me for whenever this season starts back up. I don't think this break has hurt me in any way. It's something you got to roll with."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.