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.

What we know — and don’t know — about Al Avila’s trade record

Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila has a very busy two weeks ahead of him.

Despite whatever conjecture there will be via public or private comments, the Tigers are likely to at least sell some assets at the trade deadline. This will be the first time this happens under Avila, though he was heavily involved in Dave Dombrowski’s 2015 selloff.

I have, at times, been a bit surprised by the antipathy some Tigers fans harbor toward Avila. The truth of the matter is that his list of moves, particularly on the trade front, is not that long. There are the ones that he didn’t make, but according to those in the know, was hugely responsible for — Michael Fulmer was his idea, as was J.D. Martinez.

A majority of Avila’s free agent signings have been criticized, but looked sound at the time. Justin Upton looked like a disaster, but is now an All-Star. Jordan Zimmermann hasn’t worked out, but not even the most cynical fan could have predicted a spate of injuries and what happened after. Mark Lowe was iffy, but it was really only the Mike Pelfrey signing that commanded significant resources and was ripe for criticism immediately. Even that, as bad as it was, will have no long-term implications, as Pelfrey’s dollars will come off the books after this season. It was just the wrong choice.

What about Avila’s trades? Let’s go through the significant ones.

November 18, 2015 — Tigers trade infielder Javier Betancourt and catcher Manny Pina to the Milwaukee Brewers for relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez.

Whatever you think of what Rodriguez turned into in 2017, the Tigers did give up nothing of value to get him. Pina is a career backup, while Betancourt is a career .234 hitter at AA.

In 2016, Rodriguez posted a 3.24 ERA and saved 44 games for the Tigers. He did it for $7.5 million dollars. Was he elite? No. Did he blow some bad ones? Yes. Was he good enough overall? Pretty much. The Tigers got a year of decent relief pitching for nothing.

November 20, 2015 — Tigers trade relief pitcher Ian Krol and pitcher Gabe Speier to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for outfielder Cameron Maybin.

Again, Avila gives up little of value here. Speier has some potential, but doesn’t look like he’s about to become an elite reliever or anything like that. Krol is an inconsistent LOOGY. Maybin hit .315 in an injury-plagued season for the Tigers before being dealt again. Good deal, though, one that fans can have no complaints with.

December 9, 2015 — Tigers trade pitchers Chad Green and Luis Cessa to the New York Yankees in exchange for pitcher Justin Wilson.

Outstanding. On one hand, both Green and Cessa have turned into big leaguers, and Green has turned out to be a pretty good reliever. So is Wilson, though — a hard-throwing lefty who should command a significant return on the trade market. The rare trade that works for both sides, but it’s safe to say there are few regrets from the Tigers side of the deal.

November 3, 2016 — Tigers trade outfielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels for pitcher Victor Alcantara.

A salary dump, pretty much. Doesn’t look great on the surface. Alcantara has good stuff if he can ever get command of it.

That’s it. There are some other minor ones — swapping Bryan Holaday for Bobby Wilson, and the Mikie Mahtook deal — but Avila is, near as I can tell, loathed by certain segments of the fanbase on the basis of four trades — three of which were good — and four free agent signings, as well as his retention of Brad Ausmus as manager.

Why? Who knows. The obvious answer is the team hasn’t succeeded despite a high payroll, but a number of the contracts that have led to this situation were handed out by Avila’s predecessor. The same goes for the lack of prospects and roster flexibility — the result of an organization under a mandate from ownership to stretch the window out as long as possible, even when it probably shouldn’t have been. Was Avila second in command during that time? Yes. We don’t know how much or how little input he had on all these moves.

The reality is, as much as some Tigers fans would like to write Avila’s epitaph now, his record as general manager of the team is very much a blank slate. What happens in the next two weeks will go a long way toward defining it.

Comerica Park to Move in Fences Once Again

comerica_dimensions

Comerica Park will soon see drastic changes to its outfield fences. (Click to Enlarge)

DETROIT – A surprise press conference followed the Detroit Tigers’ 5-3 win over the Minnesota Twins on April 12th. Owner Chris Ilitch and General Manager Al Avila jointly announced that the outfield fences for Comerica Park are to be moved in immediately following tomorrow’s series finale with the Twins.

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