Jeimer Candelario: The Learning Curve

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Last week, Detroit Tigers infielder Jeimer Candelario took home the 2020 ‘Tiger of the Year’ award given by the Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Albeit in an abbreviated season, it serves as a lesson in practicing patience when it comes to prospects. Roger Castillo did an exceptional breakdown of where the soon-to-be 27-year-old Jeimer Candelario took strides in 2020. In this piece, we’ll examine what went into ‘Candy,’ taking the next step into becoming a productive big leaguer during the prior seasons.

Detroit Tigers fans met Candelario on the day of the 2017 MLB Trade Deadline. Detroit acquired a then 23-year-old and little-known 18-year-old infielder Isaac Paredes in exchange for closer Justin Wilson and catcher/Major League movie franchise Jack Parkman lookalike Alex Avila.

At the time, the Tigers we’re getting in Candelario, the top Chicago Cubs prospect – a rarity for teams to obtain via trade nowadays – along with their No. 10 prospect in Paredes. The Cubs, who had broken the curse of the Billy Goat just a year earlier by winning the 2016 World Series, we’re trying to recapture the magic for a second-straight title, and the Tigers wisely took advantage. It’s worth mentioning that weeks earlier, the Cubs dealt their top two prospects to the cross-town rival White Sox in outfielder Eloy Jimenez and pitcher Dylan Cease for Jose Quintana. The Cubs had seen ‘Candy’ go 6-for-44 at the big-league level, and we’re willing to offer him in the deal.

2017 – The Arrival

His first month as a Tiger couldn’t have gone any better, as the sweet-swinging switch-hitter posted a .330 average with a .406 on-base percentage in 27 games. The close to 2017 likely raised expectations among fans but also forced opposing pitchers to take him seriously. This combination led to a predictable struggle in his first full season in Major League Baseball.

2018 – The Adjustment

The goal in the first full season for any big leaguer is to keep their head above water. While it’s easy to see Candelario’s stat line of .224/19/54 in 144 games and come away underwhelmed, we shouldn’t forget the significantly more important figure of wins above replacement (WAR). In 2018, ‘Candy’ posted a WAR of 1.7 (according to Baseball-Reference) – trailing only Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, and JaCoby Jones among Tigers position players that season.

As we’ve come to know, Candelario rode through as many peaks and valleys as one could. After hitting .275 with eight home runs through the first two months of the season, a 4-for-52 slump decimated his batting average by nearly 40 points. Luckily for the infielder, he maintained a stable walk rate and posted an on-base percentage over .300 in June despite hitting near .170.

As the calendar flipped to July, the batting average remained low, but his walk rate dipped significantly, cutting his on-base by almost 100 points. During the final two months of the year, Candelario got his monthly averages over the infamous Mendoza line, but nowhere near his first two months. The performance was considered a mixed bag, but his defense remained sharp, and his WAR proved him to be an above replacement-level.

2019 – The Struggle

It was fair to expect a rebound season for Candelario in 2020, but the numbers failed to arrive where expectations sat. After a five-hit game in Toronto on March 31, a 2-for-27 slump sent him in an early-season spiral. After reaching safely in 10 of his next 12 games, he went 6-for-48, resulting in an assignment to Triple-A Toledo.

This move has worked for some, as players like J.D. Martinez and Max Scherzer come to mind. For Candelario, it was right where he needed to rebuild what may have been lost confidence, hitting .320 with a .416 on-base percentage. A critical development took place when his numbers quietly improved during the final month of 2019, hitting just .230 but posting a season-best on-base of .370. Many didn’t notice it – possibly because some wrote him off as a prospect – but it laid the groundwork for an excellent performance in 2020.

2020 – The Resurgence 

Once again, Jeimer Candelario opened the season in a tailspin, going hitless in his first 17 at-bats. Much to our collective delight, that would be the only struggle for the native of New York City. Once the calendar flipped to August, we saw a player vaulting himself back into the Tigers’ long-term plans, hitting an outstanding .327 with seven homers and 29 RBI over the final 47 games while committing just three errors all season. His performance is more effectively put into context when you stretch out what his numbers would look like at a pace of playing a regular 162-game season:

.297 AVG/22 HR/90 RBI/62 BB/.872 OPS

It’s an extremely safe assumption that Spencer Torkelson, picked first overall by Detroit in the 2020 MLB Draft, will occupy one of the Tigers corner infield spots for the better part of this decade. Still, with experience at both corners, it looks like we can consider penciling in ‘Candy’ to the Tigers lineup for the foreseeable future. It goes as a reminder to all of us not to be so quick to write off a talented young player simply because they’re not producing the way we hope.

What do you expect for Jeimer Candelario in 2021? Which infield corner will he occupy long-term? Leave a comment below and find Dan on Twitter at @ThatDanHasty!

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