Former first round pick Jeremy Jeffress threw a 1-2-3 ninth to close out the Brewers’ 5-1 victory over the Reds on Wednesday afternoon at Miller Park. The win, along with a subsequent Cardinals loss in the evening, moved the Brewers lead back out to 2.5 games in the NL Central division. The star of the day may have been first basemen Mark Reynolds, who hit a pair of homers, but it was hard to ignore the return of Jeffress and his blazing fastball.
It’s been a long path to this point for Jeffress, who was drafted 16th overall in the 2006 draft out of high school in Virginia. Just as he was settling into the type of performance that gets players with his pedigree moving up prospect lists, he was hit with his first suspension for smoking marijuana in 2007. That 50-game ban would be followed by a 100-gamer in 2009.
Those transgressions made him subject to all kinds of derision, from juvenile jokes to tongue clucking, “why is he throwing it all away” judgments. He was largely written off as a lost cause when he was dealt as part of the Zack Greinke trade in December of 2010. There were some pretty important extenuating circumstances that we didn’t know at the time, though. From Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com last September:
Jeffress was diagnosed with juvenile epilepsy in late June while playing for Triple-A Buffalo. The doctors were able to finally provide the 25-year-old with some answers on why he has been suffering from high anxiety levels and unpredictable seizures for most of his adult life.
The condition understandably took its toll on Jeffress, but now that he is being properly medicated, the symptoms have gone away and his daily routine is back to normal.
“The Blue Jays checked me into a hospital in Buffalo and they finally found out what was wrong,” Jeffress said. “They have really good doctors there and they figured out I was on the wrong medication. The medication I was on wasn’t a long-lasting overnight medication for me, it was for younger kids. They put me on extended-relief type of medicine that worked.”
Jeffress was suspended multiple times in the Minor Leagues because of positive tests for marijuana. In hindsight, he may have been self-medicating in order to help deal with his illness.
Thankfully those issues now appear to be a thing of the past. Jeffress hasn’t experienced any seizures in the past two months, and he can once again focus on making things right in his professional career.
When the Brewers brought him back this April, they did so knowing full well Jeffress’ history and feeling hey had a support system in place to help him stay clean and sober. While the personal issues seem to have hopefully largely faded into the background, those were far from Jeffress’ only stumbling blocks on his path to big league success.
The biggest problem that the powerful right hander has dealt with on the field over the years is spotty command that can lead to piles of walks and force him to throw meatballs when he’s fallen behind in the count a few too many times. Coming into action Wednesday, Jeffress had a career 50:38 strikeout to walk ratio over 51 1/3 major league innings. Those sorts of walk numbers simply don’t work at the big league level, and he’ll have to do better than that if he wants to pitch meaningful (or perhaps any) innings at the big league level.
In AAA Nashville this year, Jeffress showed some improvement of command, but was still walking nearly four batters per nine innings pitched. He also tends to allow more hits than you might expect from someone with his power stuff. He got away with these shortcomings by striking out better than a batter per inning and by not allowing a single home run. Not allowing many round trippers is one of his longest standing and most dependable assets statistically, both in the minors and in the majors, and offers at least some hope going forward.
Which brings us back to the headline question: what should we expect from Jeremy Jeffress this year? Not to be glib, but really we should expect just about anything. If things break right, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where he effectively scatters the hits and walks he does allow, striking out batters and keeping the ball in the park effectively enough to sport a low ERA and emerge as a late inning force. It’s also not hard to imagine batters finding ways to force him to make poor pitches deep in counts, a few more balls than might be expected to fall dropping in with runners in scoring position and Jeffress being sent back to Nashville or even given his release in relatively short order.
Such is the life of relief pitchers. Guys who have enough stuff to dominate hitters at times but lack the all around game to be an effective starter are plentiful in the game, though most of them don’t have the ability to do what Jeffress did on his last pitch of the game Wednesday, when, according to pitch f/x, he threw 100 MPH. That sort of heat does get attention, and it also buys guys lots of chances to show that they belong in the majors.