Despite the swirl of life changes, Tigers’ Jeimer Candelario keeping it serene

Detroit News

Chris McCosky
| The Detroit News

Detroit – It was supposed to be a happy, congratulatory Zoom conference, and for the most part it was.

In a span of two days last week, Tigers infielder Jeimer Candelario became for the first time a father (his wife Andreina gave birth to a baby girl) and Tiger of the Year. There was a lot to celebrate, even virtually.

But there was one dark cloud that had to at least be acknowledged. New York Mets second baseman Robinson Cano, Candelario’s life-long friend and workout partner, was suspended for 2021 by Major League Baseball on Wednesday, testing positive for a performance enhancing drug.

“I just saw the news,” said Candelario, who spent the shutdown in March working out with Cano in the Dominican Republic. “He’s a human being and I am here for him. He’s my friend. But I can’t tell him much more than that.

“I will give him a couple of days, then I will try to reach him. But there’s not much that I can say.”

Candelario was asked if he was aware that Cano, who had been suspended for 80 games earlier in his career, was using steroids.

“No, I don’t know about that,” he said. “I didn’t know that.”

Certainly, with Candelario not failing any drug tests in his career, there was no need to grill him further on that topic. Things got quickly back on a more festive track.

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Next question: How’s fatherhood treating you?

“Oh man, it’s a blessing,” he said, big smile breaking out across his face. “When I see my baby and my wife and having the opportunity to build my family, it’s a blessing, man. I just love her.”

Candelario, who was voted 2020 Tiger of the Year by the Detroit Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, was in Miami, working with his own personal hitting coach Frank Valdes, preparing to play winter ball in the Dominican next month.

“Winter ball is going to be good competition,” he said.

Winter ball rosters will be stacked this year after a shortened big-league season. Players are eager to make up for lost innings and at-bats. 

“Everyone has a great team this year,” he said. “With a lot of players from the big leagues and Triple-A and free agent guys who are trying to get signed. I’m excited and looking forward to it.”

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He’s waiting on the Tigers to tell him what position he will be playing. He transitioned smoothly from third base to first base last season after C.J. Cron was lost for the year. The Tigers are shopping the free-agent market for a corner infielder and it’s more likely they will land a first baseman than third baseman.

So, Candelario might be moving back to third.

“I’ve not been told yet,” he said. “I’m just working my body right now and getting a lot of work on my hitting. They will tell me in a couple of days. They have a plan.”

Candelario, after an 0-for-17 start last season, ended up slashing .297/.369/.503 with a 135 OPS-plus. It was just a 206 plate-appearance sample size, but it still looked and felt like a breakthrough season for him.

It looked and felt that way to new Tigers manager AJ Hinch, too.

“It was good to see Candelario break through,” Hinch said in a recent Zoom call. “Now we want to figure out how and why it happened and build off that.”

Candelario already has a pretty good idea of how and why it happened. It started with a very different mindset than he’d taken into his previous three big-league seasons, a mindset that he’d adapted while playing on a championship winter ball team in the Dominican in 2019.

“It was my mind, in my mind was just that I want to win, I want to win, that’s the attitude,” he said. “That helped me not think about results. I just think about producing and helping my team win. I don’t put pressure on myself in that way.”

That helped him stay strong through the 0-for-17 start. He was playing superb defense at third base. He was helping the team win games. And then his bat got hot. And that, he says, was all about trusting his process and putting a greater emphasis on pre-game scouting work.

“I worked really hard on my routine before I got on the field,” he said. “Just have a plan. You always want to have a plan. When I go into the batter’s box, I want to be able to know what I want to do.”

His approach had been more see-ball, hit-ball in the past. Last year he finally got serious about studying game plans and looking at how teams were trying to get him out. The results were pretty clear. He chased fewer pitches outside the strike zone (his chase rate dropped from 30 percent to 26 percent). He was attacking strikes, especially fastball strikes, and was hitting the ball more consistently on the barrel.

The exit velocity on balls he put in play (90.2 mph) ranked in the top 73 percentile in baseball. His hard-hit rate (47 percent) was in the top 86 and his barrel rate (10.3) was in the top 68.

“Just keep working my routine,” he said. “I want to be consistent. Last year I was pretty consistent producing. I want to be able to do that in winter ball, too, and carry that into 2021. You never stop learning in baseball.”

A lot of the strides he made last year came under the guidance of hitting coach Joe Vavra. Vavra was Candelario’s fourth hitting coach in three years. He will have another new hitting coach this year – Scott Coolbaugh.

“I just want to get to know him and build a relationship,” Candelario said. “We are going to work together a lot and we will build a relationship. It’ll be fine. It’s going to be great.”

If you didn’t know any better, you might think there’s been some Zen training in Candelario’s past. Not knowing what position he’s going to play, another new manager, another new hitting coach, a new baby at home — nothing seems to penetrate his serenity.

“Just keep my focus in not a negative way,” he said. “I try to control what I can control and what I can’t control, let it go. Just keep building my confidence and keeping my mindset positive. If you keep building that every day, you will have success.”

Twitter @cmccosky

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