I Want Candy…To be a part of the future in Detroit

(For educational purposes a key is included at the end of each section for all sabermetrics and non-routine lingo referenced in this article. For further reading on what these stats are, what they mean and how they are calculated please visit https://library.fangraphs.com/getting-started/)

Jeimer Candelario is steadily improving. (photo by Alexandra Simon)

July 31, 2017 – The Chicago Cubs were on a win-now playoff push with the corner infield positions anchored by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Meanwhile, prospect Jeimer Candelario was in AAA for the Iowa Cubs, nearly ready to play every day in the big leagues. With his positions blocked on a team looking for immediate upgrades Candelario would have to get his opportunity with a new club. The Detroit Tigers acquired Candelario and Isaac Paredes from the Cubs in exchange for veterans Justin Wilson and Alex Avila.

Candelario’s first full season with the Tigers showed a lot of promise. At age 24, he slashed .224/.317/.393 with 19 HR, 54 RBI and a 93 wRC+ in 2018, the production of a hitter 7% below league average. Combined with his defensive value at third base his production netted 2.4 fWAR, the total of a solid MLB regular. It appeared the Tigers acquired an average-to-slightly-below-average power hitter with good defense to help the rebuilding efforts.

The 2019 season did not go as smoothly for Candelario, however. His strikeout and walk rates stayed about the same but the power had disappeared. In 94 games he slashed .203/.306./.337 with 8 HR for a wRC+ of 72, the production of a hitter 28% below league average. Only Candelario’s defense saved him from posting net-negative value with 0.2 fWAR, or in other words: a replacement-level player. Candelario went from a promising young prospect to a potential bust in just a calendar year.

Key: Slash line – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage. wRC+ – weighted runs created plus. fWAR – FanGraphs formula for wins above replacement. Replacement-level – the statistical value of a fringe major-leaguer

The Paradox

SeasonK%BB%AVGxBASLGxSLGExit Velocity
201825.8%10.7%.224.205.393.34987.2
201925.6%11.1%.203.228.337.36588.2

On the surface these numbers are very similar. Many of the categories that would need improvement had improved from 2018 to 2019. Here is an extensive but not comprehensive list: K%, BB%, xBA, xSLG, EV, HardHit%, xwOBA, ZoneSwing%, LineDrive%, and a decreased GroundBall%. The results of 2019 do not make much sense on paper compared to 2018. Candelario became a better baseball player with worse production.

While it is likely true Candelario suffered from bad luck that impacted his production in 2019, Statcast is not a religion. As opponents learned more about Candelario they learned how to get him out more frequently. His skills were improving under the current approach, but this did not transition to results on the field. Something had to change.

Key: K% – strikeout percentage. BB% – walk percentage. xBA – expected batting average. SLG – slugging percentage. xSLG – expected slugging percentage. Exit Velocity (EV) – average speed of baseball in mph off the bat. xwOBA – expected weighted on-base average. ZoneSwing% – swing rate at pitches inside the strike zone.

The Framework and the Breakout

With his career on the line, Candelario erupted in 2020. Across 52 games in the pandemic-shortened season he slashed .297/.369/.503 with 7 HR, 29 RBI, 136 wRC+ and a 1.5 fWAR. To understand what led to this breakout, it first needs to be understood what makes him unique.

Jeimer Candelario’s plate discipline skills have been a highlight of his play since his prospect status. After becoming an everyday player in 2018, Candelario’s plate discipline transitioned well into the Major Leagues. This skill has been the framework to his success ever since. Each year he has placed himself well above the league average in pitches per plate appearance (Pit/PA) and posted solid walk rates. His 4.10 Pit/PA in 2021 ranks 30th of all qualified hitters in Major League Baseball.

Candelario vs league average among qualified hitters according to Baseball Reference

SeasonJeimer Candelario Pit/PAPlayer League Average Pit/PA*
20184.303.91
20194.203.93
20204.103.97
20214.103.92
*Player league average Pit/PA is calculated per 600 PA on bbref

As his plate discipline improved Candelario has seen fewer pitches without sacrificing walks. His 2021 walk percentage is currently the highest of his career at 11.2%. This can be explained by improved pitch recognition and contact skills. His strikeout percentage has decreased each season since 2018 and currently sits at 21.8%. This is the lowest mark he has posted since becoming an everyday player and sits below the league average of 23.5% in 2021. To further explain, here is a batted ball profile of Candelario from FanGraphs.

SeasonO-Swing%Z-Swing%Swing%O-Contact%Z-Contact%Contact%
201828.6%61.9%42.7%62.3%85.2%76.3%
201931.0%62.4%43.7%61.3%86.0%75.5%
202029.9%69.3%44.8%57.3%86.9%74.6%
202131.0%68.2%46.2%62.4%88.0%77.8%
Total30.1%64.5%44.2%61.2%86.0%76.1%

On the most basic level Candelario is swinging the bat more often each season. Unlike the previous three seasons in which his contact rate decreased in each subsequent season, Candelario is now making more contact than ever before. His in-zone contact percentage has increased each season, too. The most notable change in this graphic is Candelario’s in-zone swing percentage. Without sacrificing walks or increasing strikeouts he is significantly more aggressive attacking pitches in the strike zone.

For my non-baseball-savvy readers, here is the summary: More walks, more swings, more contact, more power, more aggression and less strikeouts. The foundation of a complete hitter.

Wait, foundation? What could be missing from the puzzle that has not yet been covered? The most important piece of all: launch angle.

Key: O – outside of strikezone. Z – inside of strike zone

The Final Form

For those who have followed baseball over the past decade, the launch angle revolution transformed the 2010s. In general, hitting the ball in the air more frequently resulted in better offensive production and more home runs. The thing about baseball is that there is no rule of thumb to hitting. Each player possesses a unique profile that contributes to their success or failure.

After his promising first full season the Tigers and Jeimer Candelario had reason to believe their approach combined with his skillset would produce power. They were wrong. The game adapted to this model. The more Candelario put the ball in the air with his swing path, the more outs he made. In 2020, this model was scrapped for a new one. By changing the trajectory of the baseballs Candelario hit, the Tigers changed the trajectory of his career.

Batted ball data from Statcast Baseball Savant

SeasonGroundBall%FlyBall%LineDrive%Average Launch Angle
201842.2%22.4%24.5%15.3°
201938.4%26.6%24.9%15.8°
202040.4%19.1%35.3%13.3°
202140.9%24.7%29.9%12.7°

After having success with 19 home runs in 2018 the Tigers and Candelario attempted to build on this by hitting more fly balls. His average launch angle and fly ball percentage increased from 2018 to 2019. While Candelario steadily improved his underlying skills, he was not meant to play under this model. His production plummeted and soon prognosticators were talking about Candelario like his days as a Tiger might be numbered.

Searching for answers amidst the launch angle revolution, Candelario and the Tigers went in the opposite direction, literally and figuratively. From 2020 to present day, Candelario’s new approach paid huge dividends. His game power manifested with a lower launch angle focused on hitting line drives. Attempting to hit fly balls for power was no longer at the forefront of his approach. With his skill improvements, this change in approach quickly lit up the stat sheets.

Across a larger sample in 2021 this approach has been tweaked. However, it is proving 2020 was no fluke. In 110 games Candelario is slashing .279/.363/.433 with a 120 wRC+ and 2.3 WAR. His 32 doubles are tied for second in all of baseball. The most value was found in Candelario’s play by harnessing his skills to create gap-to-gap power, especially in Comerica Park.

The Future

On a non-statistical note, it is becoming a lot of fun to watch Candelario play. His personality is a fan favorite, his confidence is soaring with consistent production on the field, and he is showing emotion more consistently and controlling it to get the most out of his game. It seems the best days of his career are ahead. It would be a mistake for the Tigers to let those happen anywhere other than Detroit.

Spencer Torkelson likely gets a crack at third base in 2022, Candelario’s primary position, but positional versatility is more important than ever in today’s league. Candelario already has experience at first base; he and Torkelson being able to play both corner infield positions will add more flexibility to the roster.

Candelario is set to hit free agency in 2024. With Miguel Cabrera approaching the end of his career, the Tigers will most likely need to fill a corner infield position in 2024, if not sooner than that. Spend money, Chris. #ExtendCandy.

World Series Recap: Spend money, Chris.

Game 6: Rays 1, Dodgers 3. LA wins the World Series 4-2

After their conservative approach to game 2, the Dodgers rested their best arms and threw everything at the Rays for games 3-5. Outside of a catastrophic 9th inning meltdown in game 4, the Dodgers were able to secure an advantage in the series 3-2. They won games 3 and 5 after clutch pitching performances from Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw. 

Going into game 6, the Dodgers faced an identical matchup to game 2: Tony Gonsolin vs. Blake Snell. Snell dominated in game 2, surrendering only a 2-run home run to Chris Taylor as the Rays went on to win 6-4. In game 6, Snell picked up right where he left off; he carved through the Dodgers’ lineup, striking out five of the first six batters.

The Rays’ Randy Arozarena broke the scoring open in the first inning, taking a slider to the opposite field for a single-postseason record 10th home run. The Dodgers’ game plan was to have Gonsolin function as a regular starter. That plan quickly fell apart as his pitch count elevated and he struggled to throw strikes. Gonsolin exited having thrown just 48 pitches in 1.2 innings. 

Everything changed in the 6th inning for the Dodgers. Battling with a one run deficit, the offense finally arrived. Austin Barnes led off the 6th inning with a single up the middle off Blake Snell. It was just the second hit given up by Snell at that point, on only 73 pitches. With one out and one on in the 6th, Rays manager Kevin Cash pulled Snell and went to the bullpen. 

The Rays turned to reliever Nick Anderson. After missing in location with the first few pitches, he gave up a double down the line to Mookie Betts. With Austin Barnes at third and Mookie at second, Anderson spiked a slider that got away from Mike Zunino and the game was tied. With Corey Seager batting next, he weakly grounded to first and similarly to game 1, Mookie made a phenomenal jump and beat out the throw to score a critical run.

The former MVP came up huge for the Dodgers. (photo by Alexandra Simon)

With this appearance, Anderson had given up a run in his 7th consecutive postseason appearance, breaking the previously held record by José Paniagua with the 2000-2001 Seattle Mariners. As Cash’s plan imploded, so did the Rays’ season. This begs the question, did Kevin Cash cost the Rays a championship? The obvious answer seems to be yes. My answer? No, but he is not free from blame. More on that later.

Mookie again proved why he is worth every penny of his 12-year $365 million extension. He homered in the 8th, extending the Dodgers’ lead to 3-1 and sealing victory for a long-awaited championship in Los Angeles.

In a similar fashion to game 7 of the NLCS, Julio Urías entered the game and pitched 2.1 perfect innings to close out the World Series. The Dodgers bullpen went on to do everything asked of them and Dave Roberts played his matchups perfectly. They threw 7.1 scoreless innings, striking out 12 batters and giving up just 2 singles. The Dodgers won the 2020 World Series and ended a 32-year title drought.

Kevin Cash’s management was less than perfect, but analytics are not to blame.

It seems easy to bash the decision to remove Blake Snell. It prompted an onslaught of anti-analytics rhetoric and how it “ruins the game.” Here’s the breakdown by the numbers.

Removing Blake Snell was the correct analytical decision. Snell last completed 6 innings of work in July of 2019. After hitting the upper 90s with his fastball for most of the night, the last fastball Snell threw was his slowest of the night, registering at 94.3 mph. This season, including the postseason, here are Blake Snell’s splits each time through the batting order entering game 6.

Snell 2020 SplitsBatters FacedOpponent AVGOpponent OPSStrikeout %
1st time144.137.48433.3
2nd time125.295.92528.0
3rd time34.303.96023.5
An-Snell-ytics

It is no question Snell’s effectiveness decreases the longer he stays in the game, and with more appearances the opponents’ power jumps off the charts. With former MVP Mookie Betts stepping to the plate for a third time and a lefty/righty matchup, it was the correct decision to end the night for Snell and move to the bullpen. Kevin Cash’s choice of Nick Anderson is where he made a fatal mistake.

Nick Anderson had been dominant in the 2020 regular season posting a 0.55 ERA, a strikeout rate of 44.8% and posting an even 1.0 WAR. The postseason was a different story, however. Entering game 6, he had given up a run in 7 of his 9 postseason appearances, with 6 of those runs allowed coming in consecutive appearances. He posted an ERA of 5.11, had given up 15 hits, 4 walks, 3 home runs and collected just 9 strikeouts in 14.1 innings. To put it simply, he was bad.

Peter Fairbanks or Diego Castillo were better options to face Betts. Cash’s trust in an underperforming Anderson in the biggest moment blew up in his face, and the Rays lost the World Series. This was not an analytical decision. This was a mistake.

This may raise the question, “You argued in favor of Brandon Lowe last article about sticking with the best players in the biggest spots. Doesn’t this contradict the argument?”

It is a little complicated, but the argument is different for two reasons. First, the Rays do not have many offensive weapons, as the previous article stated. They ranked in the lower half of the league in most offensive categories. Demoting Lowe in the batting order or replacing him entirely likely would not yield different results. Sticking with Lowe in the two hole gave the Rays critical home runs that provided them victories in game 2 and 4. He had proven himself to stay in his role, delivering in the clutch to keep the Rays’ season alive. The second reason is the Rays are known for their arsenal of relief arms. They can plug many different talented relievers in different situations to find success. The difference here is Anderson’s performances had presented no recent signs of success, and his failure cost them the World Series. The Rays had more reliable options to turn to that they failed to use.

So, analytics are not to blame, Kevin Cash royally screwed up and the Rays lost. The blame goes to Kevin Cash, right? Well, again, it’s not so simple.

The Rays have managed baseball games in this style for years, and it rewarded them with an AL pennant, coming up just 2 victories short of a championship. The way the Rays play baseball was a massive success. There was no reason for them to abandon their philosophy with their season on the line. The failure lies within their choice of replacement, not the removal of Snell itself. Cash can be blamed for his mistake, but the holes in the Rays roster that were repeatedly exposed by the Dodgers were out of his control.

Andrew Friedman is a genius and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg cost them the World Series.

Friedman, President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers, previously made a name for himself with the Tampa Bay Rays. As Friedman and Sternberg shared a love for the analytics, they began to mold the former expansion franchise into what it is today. Friedman started his career in their front office in 2004 and became the club’s General Manager in 2005. In 2008, the Rays reached their first World Series. The Rays continued to field successful teams despite coming up against their big money counterparts within the AL East.

In 2014, Friedman left the Rays for the Dodgers, bringing along his analytical model and marrying it with the Dodgers’ big spending ways. Since 2014, the Dodgers have been the most successful team in baseball and show no signs of slowing down soon. 

The problem with Sternberg’s analytical model is his refusal to invest money into the product on the field. Smart spending correlates with winning. Check out this article from GHF in 2019: https://glasshalffulmer.com/2019/09/30/spend-money/ 

The Tampa Bay Rays were third to last in baseball with a 2020 payroll of $28.3 million. The biggest trick of the league is owners making us believe there are “small markets” and “big markets.” The reality is there are just big markets and bigger markets. The Dodgers had a payroll of $107.9mil, second behind only the Yankees. When one takes into consideration the value of these franchises, the Rays are still not proportionately spending as much on their roster as the Dodgers. They might not be able to afford players like Mookie Betts or Clayton Kershaw however, they can easily afford some free agent upgrades to improve their roster. The highest paid player on the Rays was Charlie Morton at $15 million before pro-rated for the shortened 2020 season. He is one on a very short list of free agents for Tampa Bay.

The Rays offense sputtered in the World Series. Their inability to score runs ultimately led to their demise. The Rays were forced to rely on inadequate offensive options in the face of one of the greatest teams ever constructed. It is a remarkable achievement and a testament to the players and coaching staff that they only fell 2 games short of a title.

The blame for the Rays failure resides with Stuart Sternberg, who refused to invest into his product. With a few offensive upgrades, the current Rays roster likely turns the tide against LA and probably doesn’t end up in the situation of preserving a 1-0 lead to save their season. No manager is perfect. Cash’s mistake was his own doing. Without a lineup to provide any cushion, though, Sternberg created the situation for his manager to fail.

Where do the Tigers end up in all this?

This World Series is a lesson to all that a lack of investment is not enough to win. Against their toughest challenge, the Rays’ formula crumbled. It was not solely because of analytics; it was not solely because of Kevin Cash. It is because they refuse to spend money at the rate of their competition.

What’s next for Al Avila and the Tigers? (photo by Alexandra Simon)

The Dodgers are truly MLB’s model franchise. Their commitment to analytics and a payroll of All-Stars won them a championship. Tigers owner Chris Ilitch is a multi-billionaire. With the Tigers’ commitment to analytics, they are taking the right steps toward success. Since they started their rebuild in earnest in 2017, they have consistently avoided spending money and produced subpar results. This rewarded them with top prospects Casey Mize, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson through the draft. 

Unfortunately, these players won’t be enough to bring a championship to Detroit. As the Tigers emerge from the rebuild, it is time to spend and spend big. Through the Ilitch family, the Tigers have the power to establish themselves as leaders of the new school, marrying the analytical approach with a large payroll. Will they seize the opportunity? Or will greed hinder their opportunities in their franchise’s most important moments? Only time will tell.

Diamonds in the Rough: Highlights from a rough season on the diamond

I won’t sugarcoat it. Baseball wasn’t much fun for the Tigers or their fans in 2019. This season featured one of Detroit’s worst teams in the history of the franchise, and easily the worst team since the dreaded 2003 season. It was ugly, frustrating and seemed at times the end was nowhere in sight. Thankfully, it’s finally over. Fans can enjoy the postseason with no additional stress. Finishing with the worst record in baseball at 47-114, the Tigers secured the #1 overall pick for the second time in three years and are poised to significantly upgrade an already rising farm system. Competitive baseball is likely a few years away, but that doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom. Let’s dive into what the Tigers can look forward to in 2020 and beyond.

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