Nick Feight was the primary catcher for the UNC Wilmington Seahawks in 2016. Throw in a few games as a designated hitter and he led Division I for power production from a catcher with 21 home runs and 91 RBI.
That was Feight’s sophomore season, when he also batted .349. Considering such outrageous numbers, it would seem Feight’s role as the starting catcher should have been safe in 2017.
“Ryan just kept getting better and better,” Seahawks coach Randy Hood said. “We had to get him behind the plate. He also DHed and played some in left field or right field, but he became our regular catcher that season, and Nick Feight did a lot of DHing.”
That would be Ryan Jeffers, who played in 13 games for UNC Wilmington as a walk-on freshman in 2016, then 51 games with a .333 average, 10 home runs and 32 RBI as the No. 1 catcher in 2017, and then in all 62 games in 2018 with a .315 average, 16 home runs and 59 RBI.
Jeffers’ collegiate career ended on June 4, 2018, when the Seahawks lost in their fourth game of a double-elimination NCAA regional tournament. That was the same day he was drafted in the second round by the Twins.
On Thursday, the Twins needed a catcher, one day after Mitch Garver pulled a muscle in his right side on a strikeout. They passed on Willians Astudillo, now cleared from the virus and ready to play, and brought over Jeffers to be the primary catcher during Garver’s absence (and perhaps longer).
Jeffers made an immediate impression. He delivered an RBI single in his first at-bat in the third inning, then singled again in the fifth and was hit by a pitch in the eighth. He finished 2-for-3.
Obviously, the numbers are distorted by there being no minor leagues being played in 2020, but get this:
Jeffers was in the lineup as the Twins catcher after playing 167 games in two seasons in the minors. Joe Mauer was the Twins catcher on opening night in April 5, 2004, after playing 277 games in three seasons in the minors.
Mauer came out of high school, was the No. 1 overall draftee and was going to be 21 in two weeks when he debuted (with a twisted knee trying to catch a pop-up in the Metrodome). Jeffers was coming out of three seasons in college, was the 59th overall draftee and turned 23 in June.
However you want to compare it, the Twins put Jeffers on an extremely fast track to starting duty as a big-league catcher — and making his promotion quite a surprise up here on the northern prairie.
“I can’t say I’m that overly surprised, because I’ve always believed in Ryan,” said Hood, from coastal North Carolina. “I think we got a young ballplayer with a chip on his shoulder when he came here. The ACC didn’t look at him. The only offers he had were from smaller programs than ours.
“And when Ryan didn’t play much as a freshman, he just worked harder on his catching skills, his swing, and in the weight room. He was going to prove to people that they had missed on him.”
Hood was an assistant coach for 18 years to Mark Scalf, a coaching legend at UNC Wilmington. This was Hood’s first season as head coach and it lasted for 16 games before the shutdown.
As an assistant, Hood heard about Jeffers at Sanderson High School in Raleigh, N.C., and then watched him closely with a summer traveling team.
“He was 6-foot-2, 6-3, but long and lean, maybe 180 pounds,” Hood said. “He actually left his first traveling team because he wasn’t playing much. He went to a second traveling team and I kept following him. There was talent there, and I thought we could be the perfect place for him.”
Hood’s sales pitch to Jeffers was not overwhelming:
“There are several other talented catchers in the program, including Feight.”
“We can’t give you any financial help the first year. Maybe as a sophomore, if you earn it.”
On the plus side, UNC Wilmington had a long tradition of developing catchers, with Feight and then Jeffers being the eighth and ninth drafted from the program since 2002.
“How did Ryan take the challenge we gave him?” Hood said. “As a sophomore, he beat out a returning All-American, and then turned himself into a second-round draft choice.
“He’s a very good athlete. He can throw and isn’t slow. He had to get better as a receiver, and he did that. As a hitter, he has exceptional power for a catcher. He’s also a physics major and an Academic All-American.”
Hood paused and said: “It says a lot, doesn’t it, that the Twins, a team that thinks it can do something in the playoffs, calls him up with not much minor league experience and puts him right in the lineup?
“The Twins must feel like Ryan can handle that, and so do we in Wilmington.”