With spring training a little over two weeks away, the free agent pool has dwindled to a handful of impact players propping up an otherwise uninspiring assortment of roughly replacement-level players. Much of this remaining group is either too expensive for the Yankees’ self-imposed budget, or do not move the needle enough to merit consideration. One of the few players who may yet catch the Yankees’ eye is Jeremy Jeffress.
Once a member of the vaunted trio at the back end of Milwaukee’s bullpen — Jeffress, Josh Hader, and Corey Knebel — Jeffress was released by the Brewers in 2019 after totaling a 5.02 ERA in 52 innings. He was able to rediscover some of his form in 2020 with the Cubs, posting a 1.54 ERA in 23.1 innings, which may just earn him a job on a major league roster this season.
The 33-year-old righty was truly dominant in 2018, sporting a 1.29 ERA, 2.78 FIP, and 2.86 xFIP with 89 strikeouts (29.8 percent strikeout rate) in 76.2 innings. However, diminishing velocity and spin rate rendered his stuff rather pedestrian, and resulted in his eventual release from the Brew Crew. Jeffress has lost roughly two miles per hour and 300 RPMs on the fastball, and it now sits around a decidedly hittable 93 mph. The .401 expected wOBA against his fastball in 2020 is quite a departure from the .299 mark in that stellar 2018 campaign.
Jeffress is a perfect example of why teams look beyond traditional measurements such as ERA when evaluating players. That 1.54 mark from 2020 is not nearly as predictive of future performance as other metrics. For example, the more than 2.5 run increase from his ERA to his FIP (4.09) shows how much a sturdy defense aided his performances. This is further supported by his unsustainably low .161 BABIP, which is just over half his career .308 mark and is sure to regress to the mean going forward. He is striking out fewer and walking more batters than any point in the last three years, and his measly 5.7 percent K-BB% is well below league average and his worst mark since 2012.
It’s not just that Jeffress is fooling fewer batters; he’s also getting hit the hardest of his career. His average exit velocity against (89.9 mph) and hard-hit rate (45.6 percent) are personal worsts.
All that being said, not everything is doom and gloom for Jeffress. He owns a varied pitch mix, throwing the sinker, splitter, and curveball each over 25 percent of the time, with the curveball generating a greater than 40 percent whiff rate. He allows an average launch angle of only 2.9 degrees and induces groundballs at a 54.4 percent clip, well better than league average. Even though he gets hit hard, batters rarely do damage. Jeffress allowed only 0.39 homers per nine innings in 2020, and his barrel rate against of 3.5 percent places him in the 91st percentile league wide.
Most of the time in our free agent target series, we choose to highlight players who we think the Yankees may consider. These can range from automatic starters to depth pieces. I wanted to take a slightly modified approach with this post to show that there are some players who seem like real upgrades at first glance, but upon closer inspection give reason to think twice. This is not to say that Jeremy Jeffress does not still have something to offer to a big league club; just that the Yankees had better do their homework before potentially offering him a contract.