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2020 Player Review: Jeimer Candelario was the Tigers Player of the Year

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The Candyman changed positions, changed his approach, and broke out in a big way this season.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, the Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America voted Jeimer Candelario the Tigers Player of the Year. That honor was well-earned. After consecutive seasons in which he struggled mightily at the plate, Candelario overcame a rough start and a positional switch to break out in a big way offensively.

For Tigers general manager Al Avila, there had to be some relief in his success. After all the failings of the Detroit Tigers 2017 selloff, Candelario and prospect Isaac Paredes represent the hope of redemption. It’s difficult to have too much confidence in a breakout after just two months of quality production, but the underlying metrics suggest that his improvements should be somewhat sustainable.

On the surface, Candelario may appear simply the beneficiary of better batted ball luck as opposed to real improvements. After a strong quarter season debut in 2017, he posted wRC+ marks of 94 and 72 respectively in 2018 and 2019. Things changed drastically in 2020 as he put up a fantastic 137 wRC+ on the strength of a .372 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against a league average of .292. There’s no denying the success this season, but the high BABIP makes one worry whether it’s repeatable. The truth, as it so often is, lies somewhere in between.

Jeimer Candelario 2017-2020

Season PA wRC+ K% BB% BABIP OBP ISO
Season PA wRC+ K% BB% BABIP OBP ISO
2017 142 112 21.1 9.2 0.351 0.359 0.142
2018 619 94 25.8 10.7 0.279 0.317 0.169
2019 386 72 25.6 11.1 0.262 0.306 0.134
2020 206 137 23.8 9.7 0.372 0.369 0.205
2021 (Steamer) 628 109 24.5 11.1 0.304 0.343 0.200

Contact

Strikeout and walk rates are always the first stop with such questions in mind. Candelario’s typically above average walk rate declined by 1.4 percent in 2020, checking in with at 9.7 percent, which is still a little above average. He did trim his strikeouts as well, cutting 1.8 percent from his 2019 mark. So, slightly fewer walks with a small decrease in strikeouts equals more balls in play. The lack of a distinct change in his strikeout and walk rates says the change in production was either fueled by either quality of contact, or was just a matter of fortune on balls in play.

In fairness, odds are good that Candelario isn’t going to hit for a batting average of .297 again next season. His batting average on balls in play in 2020 was a whopping .372, after posting marks of .279 and .262 the past two seasons respectively. But there are some very good reasons to explain why more balls fell for him in 2020.

Adding line drives and hard ground balls generally produces higher average, particularly if you’re hitting the ball harder overall. Candelario did all three things, and did them while boosting his isolated power mark to .205, easily the highest mark of his career. He added three percent to his line drive rate, taking it to 25.9 percent, and added 2.7 percent to his ground ball rate as well. In all he lowered his average launch angle to 13.3 degrees from over 15 degrees the previous two seasons. Most telling of all was the fact that he upped his average exit velocity to 90.2 miles per hour, a very substantial gain over his 87.9 mph career average.

Those are all good signs.

In terms of his discipline, we can still see some gains that didn’t translate in his strikeout and walk rates. His contact percentage on pitches in the zone stayed at basically his career averages. However, he offered more aggressively at pitches in the zone this year, swinging at 8.2 percent more strikes than in 2019. The fact that he swung at more strikes and lost just one percent from his zone contact percentage tells us that he was more aggressive without whiffing much more. He also chased less on pitches out of the zone than he did in 2019, reversing a somewhat worrying trend.

All told, this led to Candelario upping his barrel percentage by 4.4 percent over his 2019 mark. His hard hit percentage was 47.1 percent, a massive increase over the three consecutive seasons when that mark sat consistently between 33 and 34 percent. So, while he probably was a bit lucky in terms of pure batting average, he put more balls in play and consistently hit the ball a good deal harder.

Splits

One fact of Candelario’s game is his consistently good production against lefthanders. As a switch hitter, hammering southpaws as a righthanded hitter has always been his strength. That certainly held true in 2020. Candy posted a ridiculous .455 OBP and 201 wRC+ as a righthanded hitter. Most of those gains came from a BABIP of .467, which is excessive but has some support in that he added about four miles per hour in average exit velocity over his career marks from the righthanded side. The differential between his actual and expected weighted on base average (wOBA) isn’t particularly great either. He was legitimately hell on southpaws.

Of course, Candelario only sees lefthanded pitchers about 20 percent of the time, so even regression back to his career averages from that side of the plate wouldn’t hurt him too much. Where he really needed to improve was hitting lefthanded, and there are still positive signs that some of his progress there is sustainable.

As a lefthander, Candelario added about five percent more line drives, and built his hard hit rate a few percentage points over his career average. The fact that the contact was a good deal better supports a belief that these improvements are sustainable. Overall, he’s fairly unlikely to put up quite the numbers we saw this season, but should be average or better from the lefthanded side, while continuing to wreck southpaws as a righthanded hitter. In the interest of avoiding filling this article up with ever more complicated split stats let’s just leave it there.

Candelario’s career wRC+ of 88 from the left side was not going to get it done. So it was important that he pumped it up to a 120 wRC+ mark this season. If he’s going to continue on as an above average hitter overall, that has to continue without too much regression. Ultimately, if Candelario is just a league average hitter against righthanded pitching, mashes lefties well, and plays above average defense? We’ve got a player who will be a consistently above average player for years to come.

Projections and future role

Steamer projects that Candelario should post a 109 wRC+ next season, and that seems a very reasonable expectation. Probably ZIPS will soon check in with a mark in the 105-115 range as well. Combine that with modestly above average defense at third base and we should have a player in the 3-4 WAR range going forward. Should the Tigers continue to play him at first base, where he posted a good mark of two defensive runs saved, that WAR calculation will be dinged somewhat, but that’s a pretty trivial matter ultimately.

Teams are aware of the distinction, of course. If a player is an above average hitter and can play first base or third base and perform at an equivalently above average level at either, the specific WAR calculation based on where a given team chooses to play him diverges from his actual value. That positional flexibility should be a plus rather than a knock against him.

How the Tigers use him going forward may depend on how serious they are about trying Spencer Torkelson at third base, and whether they believe their 2020 first overall pick will be ready to reach the majors at some point in the 2021 season. Either way, Candelario’s ability to play both well is a virtue, not a flaw. Considering that Candelario was brand new to the first base position and had some struggles initially, the fact that he still graded out above average says that he’s likely to put up even better marks with more repetitions.

After two years of struggles that had him looking like a future weak side platoon player, Jeimer Candelario finally made what appears to be a pretty sustainable breakout. The Tigers have three season of team control left, and he won’t even be arbitration eligible until after the 2021 season. The Tigers needed him to ultimately develop into a good player for the long haul, and in 2020 he took major strides toward fulfilling those expectations.