Coming into the 2018 season, Jeimer Candelario was considered one of the cornerstone players of the rebuilding Tigers. He hit .330/.406/.468 for the Tigers last year in 106 plate appearances with a 137 wRC+, after the deadline trade that sent Alex Avila and Justin Wilson to the Chicago Cubs. His high on-base percentage and walk rate (9.2 percent) had the analytics department convince new manager Ron Gardenhire to bat him second in the lineup, a position that’s reserved for one of the better hitting players on the team.
For the first two months of the season, all was going well for Candelario. By the end of May, he was hitting .275/.367/.526 with a team-leading eight home runs. His 143 wRC+ was only a few points below Miguel Cabrera’s (147) and a few ahead of Nicholas Castellanos’ (141). Then he started to struggle. It should be noted Candelario spent some time on the disabled list with a wrist injury, but his struggles are unrelated to that as he hit .292/.414/.708 with 3 home runs his first week back. No, the struggles were the direct result of opposing teams making an adjustment and pitching to him differently.
Jeimer Candelario is a switch hitter who gets the majority of his at-bats from the left side of the plate, so we’ll primarily focus on him as a left-handed batter.
Jeimer Candelario vs. RHP
Candelario had 10 infield fly balls since June 1, while he only had 2 before that. So, what’s going on? Pitchers are not varying their pitching so significantly it can account for the difference; 55 percent of fastballs in April-May according to Brooks Baseball, 54.7 percent in June-July. What they are doing differently is pitch location, specifically pitching inside more often.
Only 8.27 percent of the pitches are in the inner third of the strike zone for April and May, with most of the hot zones on the outside part of the plate, apart from the ones below the strike zone. Jeimer Candelario has a good enough eye to lay of these pitches, given his 10.7 percent walk rate in the first two months of the year.
Here, 12.45 percent of the pitches are in the inner third of the strike zone. Opposing pitchers are jamming him inside and Jeimer Candelario cannot handle pitches inside the strike zone. In the next graph, we can see that Candelario has not put one pitch in play all year that was in the inner third of the strike zone.
With Cabrera’s injury and other Tigers hitters alternately struggling or heating up, Jeimer Candelario has bounced around the lineup several times since the beginning of the year. He has spent significant time batting in all four of the top positions in the order. This has probably had some negative side effects as he may be trying to do too much and he is putting too much pressure on himself. It does not help that pitchers have found a weakness and are now exploiting it.
It is time for Tigers’ pitching coach Lloyd McClendon and Candelario to make an adjustment on working with pitches on the inside part of the plate (such as moving further away from the plate or re-positioning his hands) and it may be wise for them to do so with him lower in the lineup. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they don’t have many options to put at the top of the order, which makes this just another growing pain for a rebuilding team.