Though he had a solid season on both sides of the ball and hit a Colonial Athletic Conference-leading 16 home runs as a UNC-Wilmington junior, Ryan Jeffers still flew under the radar as the 2018 Draft approached. The Twins, however, liked what they saw in the 6-foot-4, 230-pound catcher enough to take him in the second round (No. 59 overall). He opened eyes during an impressive pro debut after signing, reaching the full-season Midwest League, and then continued to make strides in his first full season, slashing .264/.341/.421 with 14 home runs between Class A Advanced Fort Myers and Double-A Pensacola.
MLB Pipeline: As someone who was a preferred walk-on at UNC-Wilmington, would you say that you’ve always had a bit of chip on your shoulder throughout your baseball career?
Jeffers: You could say that, but it’s almost more of just a drive to work hard and continue to grow. For me it’s always been such a developmental mindset, especially my freshman year -- I didn’t play much, I think I had like 24 at-bats or something -- but I sat in the bullpen and worked my tail off, just catching and getting comfortable there. That’s the mindset I bring into every day, to not be satisfied and prove people wrong.
MLB Pipeline: You studied physics at Wilmington with the plan to become an engineer. Where did your interest in both physics and engineering come from, and had baseball not worked out, what was your next career step in the field?
Jeffers: I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. I was always more into the sciences and engineering-type stuff, but Wilmington didn’t offer an engineering degree, and the closest thing they had was physics. So my freshman year, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do that, so I started as a marketing major and took one business class and knew that was not for me. So I promptly switched over to physics and decided I was going to do it. Yes, it was really hard, but I enjoyed it, because my mind is analytical like that. Had baseball not worked out, I would have wanted to go into something in aerospace or aeronautics, maybe work for a defense contractor like Boeing.
MLB Pipeline: So where did that interest come from, childhood?
Jeffers: My mom is an engineer, but I’m not sure if I get that love for engineering from her, necessarily. It’s something that’s always clicked with me -- I’ve always liked numbers a lot more than I like words -- so I always felt it was something I should give a shot.
MLB Pipeline: Moving on to baseball, did you know that the Twins were interested in taking you going into the Draft? Did you have any idea how high?
Jeffers: I hadn’t talked to them a ton. My college coach did a good job of making sure that, when the season rolled around, that all scouts went through my advisor, so most of my conversations were through them. I knew the Twins were high on me, but not sure about the range. If I had to put money on it, I would’ve said later, but it was nice to be wrong, you know?
MLB Pipeline: What were you doing on Draft day when you got the call? How did you react and how did you celebrate with your family?
Jeffers: We were playing in a regional in East Carolina that weekend and the Draft was a Monday. We actually had a rainout on Sunday, so we played on Monday afternoon-ish and finished the game around 3 or 4 pm. Our team took a bus back to Wilmington after the game and I had just gotten to my apartment and was unpacking with my girlfriend, now my wife. We weren’t going to watch the Draft, but I knew there was a possibility that I could be taken on Day 1, so we just stayed by the phone and, sure enough, I got a call from my agent saying, “Hey, the Twins are going to take you … are you cool with this number?” To which I replied, “Absolutely!” It worked out really well.
I didn’t see my name get called live on TV, but Ballengee, my agency, sent me the video afterward of Joe Nathan going up to the podium and announcing the pick. And to go along with the whole being an underdog thing, MLB Network had only prepared stuff for the Top 200 or so guys, so it seemed like they were scrambling a bit when my name was called.
MLB Pipeline: Last year was your first full season. What was the biggest difference you noticed after making the jump from Florida State to Southern League?
Jeffers: I think I honestly played better in Double-A. For me, I felt more in-tune there. The Florida State League has this aura around it, which takes it out of you. It’s a grind, because you show up to the field every day and it’s already 100 degrees and you’re sweating through your socks. But, in Double-A, I would say better arms at the back of bullpens, guys with bigger arms and better breaking balls were the big differences.
As an organization, and for me from the defensive side as a catcher, there’s just more numbers and stats on those [Double-A] players. I’ve always really enjoyed that part of the game, the game-calling aspect, so it’s cool to get up there and have more information and resources available to develop a really good game plan.
MLB Pipeline: What was it like to be invited to big league camp this year, and, overall, what was that experience like for you? What were some specific things you were working on this spring and what were some of the more important lessons/tips/advice you gained from being in a big league atmosphere?
Jeffers: It was really awesome to start to build relationships with the big league coaching staff and the players -- just really start to get to know them and let them get to know me. We’d brought in Alex Avila, and he was really awesome to me during Spring Training -- just kind of brought me along. I wasn’t afraid to ask him questions, and luckily he didn’t get too annoyed with me picking his brain. So it was really cool to be around guys like that, taking advantage and asking questions, being vulnerable so that I could learn. For me, it wasn’t about going out there and proving that I can play baseball -- everyone already knows I can do that. It was about building relationships.
MLB Pipeline: If you’re comfortable doing so, explain the mood in Twins camp the day we all learned that baseball was suspended.
Jeffers: It wasn’t even like a sad thing -- it was more, like, “OK, what do we do now?” There were so many questions floating around the room that no one really had any time to show emotion, because no one really knew what was going on. I think the Twins truly did a great job in just telling us to go home early, making it clear that it would be best if we all just went home. They saw the writing on the wall, so thankfully we were able to get a plan going early, and for us non-40-man guys, we had to go home. It just all happened so fast, no one had time to think about it all that much.
MLB Pipeline: How are you continuing to train throughout all of this? How have you been spending your time besides training?
Jeffers: My gym and hitting facility have been great about following all the proper rules and guidelines. We’re shut down, but me and one other guy have been allowed to go in there and get our work in. I’ve been doing two workouts per week there and one at home, and then getting in there to hit. The owner of the facility called the Wilmington police to make sure it was cool he stayed open, so that worked out very well. [Twins manager] Rocco Baldelli called me the other day and told me that I’m very lucky, because I’m one of a few guys who still has the opportunity to get in a cage right now. I’m very lucky to still have the ability to still go and play baseball and do what I need to do to prepare.
But when I’m not training, I’m just at home with my wife, staying inside. We were talking the other day about how we haven’t seen anybody in weeks. It’s been weird, but you need to do what you need to do to be smart and safe.
MLB Pipeline: Speaking of your wife, you guys got married this past offseason. So, first of all, belated congratulations to you both. Your agent, Lee Long, officiated the wedding, and I get the sense that you two have a pretty special relationship -- like Jerry McGuire and Rod Tidwell. How important was it for those two aspects of your life to intertwine in that way for such a special occasion?
Jeffers: Lee and I had built a really good relationship, obviously, and he’s a deacon at his church, so we wanted to tie in that religious aspect with the baseball. Lexi and I had discussed going about it some different ways, maybe using a preacher; but we looked at Lee and saw him as really the best option to blend those two parts of our lives. So we asked him and he was honored that we did -- worried and nervous, but honored -- and he did a really great job. He took it very seriously and put a lot of thought and heart into it. The service was great.
MLB Pipeline: I also hear you have an adorable Labradoodle who you’re obsessed with. Tell the Pipeline readers a little bit about your pup.
Jeffers: We got him at the beginning of the offseason and he’s now almost eight months old -- named Yogi, after Yogi Berra. He’s super athletic, so one of my quarantine goals has been to get him to catch a Frisbee, and he’s nearly mastered that.
MLB Pipeline: Sounds like you have Yogi working on his route efficiency.
Jeffers: Definitely. It throws him off a bit when the wind kicks up, but he’s been really good. It’s been really good for me and my wife to have that responsibility right now, but it’s also made us realize how unready we are to have kids. I’m joking, I think, but Yogi’s been really good, and we just started leaving him outside of his kennel, which was a big step.
MLB Pipeline: I know you’ve worked a lot on your catching technique with former Twins Minor League catching coordinator Tanner Swanson. What changed with things like your receiving and framing from working with him? Anything specific you worked on that you see as beneficial in your development behind the plate?
Jeffers: Really since Day 1, Tanner took me under his swing. During my first pro season, he was just watching me -- seeing what I do well, what I don’t do well. Last offseason, going into 2019, he started to throw a lot of different things at me. As a bigger catcher, I took advantage and explored ways that I can steal strikes. For example, I don’t think I caught a single pitch last year with both my knees off the ground.
The one knee down and leg out -- I’m sure you’ve seen how Mitch Garver catches -- I do that, but probably even a little more extreme, because Mitch still has both feet under him at times. But Tanner really helped me start building that repertoire behind the plate of being a defensive guy who can really handle a pitching staff and steal a lot of strikes.
MLB Pipeline: Does the one-knee-down approach limit your mobility and athleticism at all, or do you find yourself as agile as you were before?
Jeffers: It actually helps me a lot more. I don’t have to be the most mobile in my hips … it’s more about focusing on different parts of my body, which already are super mobile, so I’ve been working on different stretches to make those stances easier and to help with the longevity of my legs.
MLB Pipeline: With all the data and analytics available in pro ball, how have you learned to embrace and utilize that information to improve your game on both sides of the ball?
Jeffers: With the catching stuff, we’re really able to dig in on our own pitchers and also opposing pitchers and batters to develop a really good plan going into games. The coaches and entire organization have done a really good job of letting us take the reins on that -- helping us, but not doing it for us so that we can develop the process and not be overloaded once we get to the big leagues.
Offensively, our hitting coaches are the same way, willing to look at video with you and help you figure out how to get better. I personally don’t look at a ton of hitting analytics stuff -- I just try to hit the ball hard. But all the pre-game prep work looking at video and analytics with opposing teams’ pitchers, and learning how to use all of that information and apply it, has been a big part of my development.
MLB Pipeline: With regards to your approach at the plate, how much do you think being a cerebral catcher has helped you improve offensively?
Jeffers: I sit on a lot of pitches, because, as a catcher, I think along with the opposing catcher, not the pitcher, trying to figure out the game plan. For example, I’ll think, “OK, as a catcher, what would I call here?” Rather than think about what the pitcher might throw. I think it can get me in trouble at times, when I’m up there thinking about what I would call in certain situations, but I think it really does help me understand different strategies and sequencing more so than the average hitter.
MLB Pipeline: Looking back at Spring Training, and thinking about when the season finally resumes, are there are specific goals you’ve set for yourself going into 2020?
Jeffers: Being in big league Spring Training, I had set goals to get to know everybody on the pitching staff -- get to know them both as pitchers and people. Honestly, I’ve never been a huge single-goal guy and always have tried to focus on the big picture like I did last year. I don’t really want to change anything from what I did last year. I was going really well at the plate and behind it, and there wasn’t one area where I felt like I really needed to do one thing better. It was more thinking along the lines of trying to grow in all aspects of the game and continuing to become more confident and consistent on both sides of the ball. That’s always been the goal for me.