After a rough start to the season in July, Detroit Tigers infielder Jeimer Candelario has been destroying baseballs, performing as a top ten hitter in all of Major League Baseball since. The key has been his ability to crush fastballs consistently, a skill he has not shown in his career until now.
It’s unclear if the Detroit Tigers ever considered sending Jeimer Candelario to Toledo after his rough start in July, but the body of work was becoming damning for Candelario’s future. He struggled mightily at the plate in 94 games in 2019, slashing .203/.306/.643. That, of course, was following a disappointing 2018 season in which he was also below-average at the plate.
By the time August rolled around and Candelario was 0-17 with nine strikeouts, it was hard to blame Tigers fans for their growing frustrations. While he has always played a solid third base, Candelario looked like he was on his way to becoming the latest prospect trade compensation-turned-bust.
As the pressure of the slow start mounted, Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire told the media that he could tell Candelario was frustrated. However, instead of rolling over and succumbing to the doubters, Jeimer has exploded offensively, all but forcing the organization to view him as an infield cornerstone moving forward.
As part of his turnaround, Jeimer Candelario has put up some truly eye-popping offensive numbers this season. His OPS of .979, a mark over 250 points higher than his career average, ranks fourth in the American League and thirteenth in all of Major League Baseball. It isn’t a product of luck, either. He’s crushing the ball, placing in the top twenty percentile in expected batting average, hard-hit rate, and average exit velocity.
The key to his success? He’s crushing fastballs like never before.
The biggest difference in the advanced statistics for Candelario from a year ago is his numbers against fastballs. Prior to this season, he was merely average against the heater, as opponent pitchers threw the pitch roughly sixty percent of the time with no concern. This year, however, he is hitting .405 with a .658 slugging against the heater.
Opponent pitchers have already taken notice of Candelario’s improvements against the pitch. The usage of fastballs against Candelario is down over five percent from 2019, as opponents are resorting to the breaking ball, a pitch that Jeimer continues to struggle with.
The overall batted ball profile for Candelario shows that he is attacking early in the count more against every pitch, not just the fastball. His zone swing percentage and first-pitch swing percentage are both up significantly from a year ago. Jules Posner of Forbes Sports noted a swing path change that may have had an impact on his confidence attacking early in the count.
Interestingly enough, Candelario’s walk rate is also down a tick from last year. While a drop in walk rate is not usually a positive sign for a hitter, it may signify Candelario’s confidence in attacking pitches early in the count in this circumstance. He is absolutely seeing the ball well right now, and the swing data backs up this theory.
Look for opponents to attack Candelario with breaking pitches early in counts over the remainder of the 2020 season. He will undoubtedly see some new looks from pitchers moving forward, but he is well-suited for success if he can continue his incredible work against the fastball.