Ryan Jeffers Is Standing On the Edge Of Glory

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The last time a Minnesota Twins catcher hit like Ryan Jeffers, he cashed in on an eight-year, $184 million contract extension.

Mauer’s $23 million salary became the subject of disdain among some fans because of his bilateral leg weakness in 2011 and his concussion in August 2013. However, the future Hall of Famer lived up to his billing as the first overall pick and signed long-term with his hometown team at age 27 after hitting .365/.444/.587 in 2009.

Jeffers, 27, won’t be so lucky. He’s on a one-year, $2.43 million contract and doesn’t hit free agency until 2027. However, Minnesota’s second-round pick in 2018 has become a vital part of its future. Jeffers projected to be a power-hitting catcher out of UNC-Wilmington, but he’s on another level this season.

He was .292/.371/.617 entering the New York Yankees series. Jeffers’ .988 OPS is higher than Mauer’s in every year except the St. Paul native’s MVP season in 2009 (1.031). Mauer never matched Jeffers’ 179 OPS+ this season. The big question is if he can sustain it.

“I’ve always told you, since the day I got up here, I believe I can be the best catcher in baseball,” said Jeffers, who hit .273/.355/.436 as a rookie in 2020. “I believe I can do that. We had to get there. Now I feel like we’re at the point I just have to keep doing that. That’s the biggest part of this game is consistency.”

Jeffers is standing at the mountaintop; now he has to stay there. Jeffers slumped at the plate to start the season like most of his teammates. He was hitting .138/.242/.379 before a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers on April 13. Jeffers went 2 for 3 in both games, raising his slash line to .229/.325/.514.

Four days later, in the middle of the Baltimore Orioles series, he was hitting .292/.358/.563. In late April, he introduced the world to the “rally sausage.” Hitting is contagious, but Rocco Baldelli became concerned that the packaged meat would spread disease throughout the clubhouse. Instead, it brought offense and joy.

The sausage-powered Jeffers was hitting .300/.393/.567, leading a resurgent group that overcame a 7-13 start and is competing for the AL Central again.

“I found a really good routine,” said Jeffers, who hit .267/.369/.490 last year. “I found what works for me. Last year, this swing was new. It worked, but it was still very new. I was still learning a lot about myself, a lot about the swing. This year, it’s just that learning curve. We’re through that learning curve, and we’ve really figured out what works and what doesn’t and where my body wants to go. It’s showing and paying off, for sure.”

Jeffers says his familiarity with his swing has allowed him to adjust quickly and continue his torrid run at the plate.

“When anybody feels comfortable with their swing, comfortable with mechanics, you’re able to make adjustments a lot quicker,” he said. “This game is a game of adjustments. You’re pitched differently [from] series to series, AB to AB. I think being able to make adjustments as quick as you can because you feel comfortable with your swing is really where I’m at now. It’s more of a confidence thing.”

Baldelli says that Jeffers’ ability to balance his contact and power swings has been the key to his success.

“It’s just a better approach to do what he’s doing than to just go up there and swing wildly,” he said. “It’s not about whether or not a guy can do damage or not for me, it’s whether or not a guy has the (right) type of swing. Because swings may all look the same, or similar, on TV. They’re very different, from the side and mechanically the way that guys work — triggers and setups, the paths they come through.

“I don’t want to overcomplicate the conversation but he can change his swing to do a lot of different things. Some guys, their entire life, they’ve generally had one path, one type of swing that works for them. It’s really hard to take a guy that’s done that and have them do what R.J. does. He’s making the most of his abilities and doing something that works for him.”

Baldelli also attributes Jeffers’ success to his two-strike approach.

Some of it’s early and middle of the count, when he gets his pitch, he’s hitting it. Which ends the at-bat at that point. Those at-bats have gone well for him. But when he’s gotten to two strikes, his two-strike setup changes. He chokes up on the bat for some bat control. He sees the ball deeper. He’s content just shooting a line to right field. He’s competing against off-speed and fastballs, up and down, inside and out.

He’s evolving and getting better at these things, but the approach with two strikes changes. It’s a drastically different situation, everything is different with two strikes. And he’s just making the decision that he’s content, not hitting the ball as hard, not doing as much damage, but using the whole field. And it’s treated him well.

It’s like, ‘Why doesn’t everybody do that?’ Because everybody doesn’t have the whole skill set to do it in that manner. Not everyone can.

Jeffers says he’s been more effective with two strikes because he’s comfortable with his revamped swing.

“It’s something my whole career I’ve felt, coming up through college and the minors, when I’m right, I’m not worried to get to two strikes,” he said. “I’d love not to be 0-2 every single AB, but if that is the case, I don’t feel like I’m out of the AB. I feel like I can battle. It goes back to the confidence in my mechanics and the confidence in spreading out, choking up, and just going to battle.”

Now, the most crucial part for him is not to become too comfortable.

“I felt like even during the year last year, there was definitely stuff left on the table,” he said. “It was like I hadn’t hit my ceiling. I hadn’t maxed out what I could do. You get in trouble when you start feeling complacent and comfortable in this game. It’s a really hard game, and it’ll humble you really quick, so [I’m] trying to avoid feeling comfortable and continuing to challenge myself in the cage. Whatever it takes to have a day where I feel terrible. You want to have those challenging moments because that’s how you get better.”

Jeffers may not have Mauer’s career. However, the Twins never took full advantage of having a catcher hit like Mauer did until he moved to first base in 2014. Despite their slow start, this year’s team has positioned itself to maximize Jeffers’ offensive production as a catcher. Even if he cools off at some point, he has protection in the lineup. Jeffers has worked his way to the apex, and Minnesota would greatly benefit if he can stay there.

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