Twins

Should Jeffers and Vazquez Be Splitting Time Behind the Plate?

Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In 2023, the Minnesota Twins only used two catchers for the entire season for the first time since 1979. Christian Vázquez signed a three-year, $30 million contract in the previous offseason, indicating that he’d be Minnesota’s starting catcher. But he struggled offensively. He only hit six home runs and generated a well below-league average 65 wRC+ (100 is average) over 355 plate appearances.

However, he made 91 starts at catcher while appearing in only 94 games. In his 94 appearances, the two-time World Series champion generated the 16th-highest Defensive Runs Above Average (Def) at FanGraphs, making him one of the top defensive players in MLB last season. He was also a stabilizing force for the fourth-best starting rotation in MLB, according to Wins Above Replacement at FanGraphs (fWAR).

Ryan Jeffers entered the season projected to back up Vázquez while making roughly $9.25 million less. Jeffers outperformed Vázquez at the plate despite making significantly less money, hitting 14 home runs and generating a 138 wRC+ over 335 plate appearances. However, he wasn’t as good as Vázquez defensively. As a result, he only made 71 starts and 82 appearances at catcher. Vázquez started 20 more games than Jeffers at catcher during the regular season. Still, Jeffers started all six postseason games at the position, while Vázquez didn’t make a single appearance.

However, the Twins underwent significant payroll cuts this offseason, and Rocco Baldelli has expressed a clear preference for the cheaper, young Jeffers by having him start every playoff game last October. Therefore, those who follow the team speculated the team could part with the expensive 33-year-old Vázquez. However, the organization retained Vázquez, who now enters the season as Jeffers’ backup.

Jeffers and Vázquez have effectively switched roles. Still, that doesn’t guarantee that Jeffers, 26, will make most of the starts. Through 17 games played, Jeffers has started nine* games at catcher and four as the designated hitter. On the other hand, Vázquez has started eight games at catcher and one at DH. Jeffers has started three more games, proving the value with his bat even on days when he doesn’t catch.

Like last year, Vázquez is off to a slow offensive start. He’s hitting .133/.156/.233 with four hits, one home run, and a 6 wRC+ over 33 plate appearances. Although Vázquez is struggling at the plate again, the nine-year veteran’s peripherals are encouraging. He hits the ball hard with a high average exit velocity.

Vázquez’s results should turn around quickly if he continues to make plus contact and maintain a sound approach at the plate. Jeffers is beginning where he ended last season offensively, hitting .292/.358/.563 with 14 hits, three home runs, and a 168 wRC+ over 53 plate appearances. Jeffers has also generated 0.7 fWAR in 13 games, only 1.6 points fewer than he earned in 96 games played in 2023.

The Twins have a strong desire to distribute starts evenly at catcher. Still, it shouldn’t be surprising, given how the organization has handled the position. Here’s how the team has distributed starts amongst their starting and backup catcher to enter the season under Rocco Baldelli from 2019 to 2022:

  • 2019: Mitch Garver (starter) – 73 starts, Jason Castro (backup) – 72 starts
  • 2020 (shortened 60-game season): Garver (starter) – 19 starts, Alex Avila (backup) – 19 starts
  • 2021: Garver (starter; oft-injured) – 53 starts, Jeffers (backup) – 77 starts
  • 2022: Gary Sánchez (starter) – 80 starts, Jeffers (backup) – 56 starts

There is purposeful parity with the Twins starting and backup catcher. Unsurprisingly, Vázquez and Jeffers are on pace to end the 2024 regular season with a perfect 81-81 split. Although this perfectly equal distribution of starts behind the plate would be satisfying, there is little chance it will come to fruition. The Twins called up a third catcher, Jair Camargo, when Carlos Correa got injured.

The Twins haven’t started Camargo, 24, behind the plate, but they likely will eventually. Also, if Jeffers continues to perform at a 68-percentile points higher-than-average rate, the Twins could forgo their load management efforts and opt for the more productive hitter. Nevertheless, an injury to Jeffers or Vázquez could make the distribution of starts a moot point and force the club to rely on one of them to make over 70% of starts behind the plate.

*An earlier version of this article stated that Jeffers started eight games at catcher. We regret the error.

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