In baseball's new age of high velocity, every mile per hour matters. Teams spend time and energy breaking down mechanics, analyzing spin rates and designing throwing programs to maximize the speed of every throw.
Which is why the Twins are justifiably proud of one of their best success stories, a player they have helped to add nearly 5 mph to his velocity in a little over three seasons.
"He's put in a ton of work, made a lot of adjustments, and we're seeing results in a really nice way," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "If he was a pitcher, this would get talked about a lot."
Oh, right. Ryan Jeffers makes a living catching fastballs, not throwing them.
But after three seasons of mediocre results controlling the running game, Jeffers made his throwing arm a priority last winter.
"I worked as much on my arm during the offseason as I did on my swing. I've always felt like I had arm strength, but I've never been able to access it in-game," the 26-year-old catcher said. "I'd never been coached on building up that strength, getting the right spin, cleaning up my mechanics. That part of my game wasn't there, and I need it to be."
The results are anecdotal, after catching in his 31st game Saturday night, but they are encouraging. Jeffers has averaged 81.1 mph on his throws to second base, 1 mph faster than a year ago and a noticeable-to-the-eye improvement from the 76.4 mph he averaged as a rookie in 2020. That ranks in the top third of MLB catchers this season as stolen base attempts — thanks to new rules limiting pitchers attempting pickoffs — are at their highest level since 1999.
So it's probably no coincidence that Jeffers has thrown out eight of the 20 runners who have tried to steal a base against him, already more than the seven he caught last season in nearly twice as many attempts (38). His 40% caught-stealing rate is more than double his career mark of 19.5% entering 2023.
"Any big leaguer wants to continue to grow. I've always said, I want to be one of the best. I want to be known as one of the best catchers in the game. So where do I need to improve my game?" Jeffers said. "And that was a clear weak point for me. Everyone could see: He could throw the ball better."
With the help of catching coach Hank Conger and a pair of pitching experts — bullpen coach Colby Suggs, who came to the Twins after working at the Driveline pitcher-development school, and Justin Willard, the Twins minor league pitching coordinator — Jeffers undertook a throwing program, including frequent use of weighted balls, that he still follows daily.
"Throwing from 60 feet. Then throwing from 120 feet. Throwing for velocity, then throwing for spin. Throwing to someone, then throwing into a net," Jeffers said of his pitcher-style workout routine. "I was at the indoor facility [at North Carolina-Wilmington, his alma mater] three days a week, four days, five days heading into camp. And I throw the weighted balls every day now."
That sort of emphasis on throwing is unusual for a position player, Baldelli noted.
The Twins have seen the effect that strong throws from players such as Carlos Correa, Joey Gallo and Michael A. Taylor can have, but non-pitchers "have other stuff to work on. Pitchers have basically one thing to spend their energy on, but when you're a position player, you have an entire realm of stuff you have to make sure you're good at," Baldelli said. "Not every guy is going to take a massive amount of their available time just for their arm, when they've got their swing, their defense, their body, all these other things they have to work on."
But it can be critical for a catcher. Conger, who spent seven seasons catching in the majors, knows that better than most, which is why he has helped Jeffers make throwing a priority.
"I take it personally. My career was cut short because of it," Conger said. "As much pride as I take in my catching, for a lot of reasons with arm strength and throwing, I never took the steps that we know now can make a difference. And if you can't control the running game, there's going to be a problem. Teams know it. They're looking for an edge."
Conger retired with a 19% caught-stealing rate, was never better than 24% during a full season — and while he was battling a partially torn labrum in 2015, he caught only one of the 43 base stealers who ran on him.
“I want to be known as one of the best catchers in the game. So where do I need to improve my game? ... Everyone could see: He could throw the ball better.”
The Astros pitching coach that year, Brent Strom, suggested he try the pitchers' throwing program, "but I just didn't know any better. I thought if I threw weighted balls, I might throw my arm out. My thought process was, if I save the bullets, I should be fine," Conger said. "When in actuality, if you don't use it, you lose it.
"I don't regret anything about my career. Honestly, I just used the information that was available at the time. But we know so much more now."