Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
This time on RtB, we review one of just two relievers expected to make the Brewers bullpen (along with Tyler Thornburg) that was drafted by the Crew. Unlike Thornburg, Jeffress was traded away, then bounced around the league before returning the the team last year.
Jeffress was drafted by the Brewers in the first round of the 2006 draft, taken after Cy Young winners Max Scherzer, Tim Lincecum, and Clayton Kershaw. After three years as a starter in the Brewers farm system (and a September call-up), Jeffress was sent to the Royals as part of the blockbuster Zack Greinke trade.
Over the next two years, Jeffress pitched just 28 2/3 innings with the Royals, posting an ERA of 5.65. He was sent to the Blue Jays for cash considerations on November 8, 2012. Jeffress posted a 0.87 ERA in a short showing with the Jays, including allowing no runs in his 9 1/3 innings after his September callup.
An immaculate September earned Jeffress a shot at a full year with the Jays in 2014, but he began the season by allowing four earned runs in just 3 1/3 innings, and was released. The Brewers quickly snatched up Jeffress and sent him to AAA Nashville, where he excelled, posting a 1.51 ERA over 41 2/3 innings.
An important part of his success in Nashville was his ability to limit walks, something he has struggled with over his career. His control continued to improve in his brief stint in Milwaukee in 2014, posting a 2.2 BB/9, less than half of his career average in the Bigs.
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Jeffress’ lack of command is ideally offset by a fastball (brooksbaseball.net calls it a sinker) that averaged over 97 MPH in 2014. Despite this blazing heater, batters hit .294 against him last season, though with little power (.353 SLG). His BABIP last year was a ridiculous .378, bumping his career line to .343, uncommonly high for any pitcher.
He has succeeded in spite of this bad luck mainly due to his ability to avoid extra base hits, and his career OBP allowed (.363) is actually higher than his SLG (.353). With such a strong –albeit short– career suppressing bats, Jeffress is just a manageable walk rate from being a back-end reliever.
It’s important to note that Jeffress has pitched just 81 career innings despite first appearing with the Brewers five seasons ago. Relievers are very difficult to predict, but Jeffress’ walk rate –and by extension his career– seems to be trending in the right direction.
G 40 IP 40 ERA 3.47 FIP 3.53 WHIP 1.450 H/9 8.8 HR/9 0.5 GB% 56.3 BB/9 4.3 K/9 8.3 K/BB 1.93
As you can probably see, Jeffress is a big-time groundball pitcher like teammate Brandon Kintzler, as partially evidenced by his allowing just three home runs over his career. Limiting the long ball is a huge part of late inning success. In fact, despite his sinker being plastered by a career .383 BABIP, he has allowed just a .047 ISO on the pitch, better even than his curveball.
Steamer currently projects Jeffress to post a 3.46 ERA with an even better 3.37 FIP over 35 innings, with very optimistic strikeout (9.26 per 9) and walk rates (3.76 per 9).
I honestly believe that two years from now (less, if K-Rod is traded) Jeffress and Will Smith could form the back end of the Brewers bullpen. Jeffress is, however, also the most likely of the pitchers I will cover to be off the team by the All-Star Break.
There are big questions around Jeffress given his service time and history of control problems, as evidenced by his numbers and his inability to stick with a team to this point. If we can take anything from his recent numbers, though, it’s that he’s beginning to throw more strikes while still posting strong strike out numbers.
Other reliever projections: