How Tigers hitting coach Joe Vavra helped Jeimer Candelario unlock his offensive talent
Detroit – His response to the question was as revealing as it was precious.
Jeimer Candelario was asked what impact hitting coach Joe Vavra had on his success at the plate this season.
“Thank God for his life,” Candelario said. “He put in a lot of time helping me, helping me control my body, helping me control my mind. He showed me how to be, mentally and physically, the right way.”
Hitting coaches typically get way too much blame for a hitter’s struggles and far too little credit for their successes, and they will tell you that’s how it should be. Vavra gave Candelario some tools, for sure. He drew him a map, told him if you do this and avoid that, you can unlock the productive big-league hitter that’s inside you.
But ultimately, it was Candelario who put in the work and made the adjustments. And here he is with 10 games left in the season ranking in the top 10 in the American League in batting average (.325), slugging (.554), weighted on-base average (.396), OPS-plus (149) and weighted runs created (151).
“Gardy (manager Ron Gardenhire) talked to me when we played a (Grapefruit League) game in the Dominican,” Candelario said. “He said it was going to be a big year for me. I know he believes in me and in the talent I have. I just had to put in the work. I did put in the work and now it’s showing up.”
Working hard has never been a problem for Candelario. Vavra showed him how to work smart, work with a purpose. The first adjustment Vavra talked to him about was his "persona." Candelario is gregarious, friendly, chatty – all admirable traits. Except when you are trying to lock in against big-league pitching.
“We had to attack the intensity of his routine, his game intensity,” Vavra said. “Just what he does on the field during batting practice, being more game-intense and taking that into the batter’s box and not having so many social chats. Talking to the catcher and talking to the umpire – there were a lot of distractions around him.
“We tried to limit those distractions around him. We really attacked that mindset.”
Vavra first took notice of Candelario back in 2017 when he was with the Twins and Candelario hit .330 in his first 27-game audition after the Tigers acquired him from the Cubs.
“He had the ability to use the whole field,” Vavra said. “He looked like a pretty natural hitter. But (pitchers) started challenging him inside and sped him up a little and he became more spin-oriented and pull happy. Then teams started shifting on him and all that.
“But I had it in the back of my mind that if he was once that guy (who used the whole field), he could probably get back to that.”
That process, being less pull-oriented, not pulling off the ball, and staying inside the ball and using all fields, has taken two-plus years.
“It really starts with the legs,” Vavra said. “That base of the swing is the most important part of it. He’s got a really good foundation now and it keeps him where he can stay inside the ball better and really handle the whole plate, especially the outside corner.
“That’s where guys fail; if they can’t handle the outside corner. Pitchers see that weakness and they will exploit it.”
With a more solid base and with less head and body movement in his swing, Candelario is recognizing pitches better, he’s chasing fewer pitches outside the strike zone and attacking more pitches in the zone.
“Once you understand that you can handle the entire 17-inch plate and you can handle it according to your plan against that particular pitcher, that’s 100 percent why he’s staying on pitches in the zone and not chasing,” Vavra said. “Jeimer has trust that he can handle the whole plate. He trusts he can use the whole field and he’s seeing the ball out of the (pitcher’s) hand as quickly as possible.”
The unanswerable question, though, is if it’s sustainable. Candelario’s batting average on balls put in play is .395, which would indicate some regression is coming.
“He has references to fall back on now, though,” Vavra said. “It’ll come and go, but hopefully it will be here longer than it will be away. There will be periods of struggle – there is for all good hitters. Look at (Milwaukee’s Christian) Yelich, how good he was and now he’s having a difficult year. That’s the way hitting is.”
It is especially difficult this year, playing the same eight teams over and over. The familiarity can be oppressive, especially if you are struggling. Teams can lock on to your weaknesses and there’s no going outside the division to face less familiar foes.
“But if he can continue to maintain his plate coverage, especially the outside coverage and being quick enough inside to understand he can get to the fastballs inside without looking there and cheating to them – he should have a pretty good career going forward,” Vavra said.
If you haven’t noticed, the Tigers’ hitters chase a lot of pitches outside the strike zone. In fact, their 34.3-percent chase rate is fourth-worst in baseball. And no team chases more bad pitches against right-handed pitching than the right-handed-heavy Tigers.
Vavra has noticed.
“Oh, we’ve got a lot of chasers,” he said. “No doubt we have a lot of chasers. We talk about it every day, Phil (Clark, assistant hitting coach) and I, we go over it and over it. We even have a couple of incentive things set up for not chasing.”
Vavra wouldn’t get specific about those incentives – think Kangaroo Court fine system.
“We’re trying not to break their banks too much,” he said, laughing. “We could probably break it every night. … Sometimes they look off the plate more than they look on it. Then they get a ball right down the middle and they take it.”
The Tigers, per average age, are the youngest team in the American League. Players like Isaac Paredes, Daz Cameron, Sergio Alcantara and Derek Hill are getting their first taste of big-league pitching, so that will skew the percentages somewhat.
But what Vavra cannot abide for hitters of any age is chasing pitching outside the zone when they are ahead in the count.
“Chasing in positive counts,” he said, shaking his head. “You get the count in your favor and you chase – either you’re not recognizing (the pitches) good or you’re not dedicated to your plan. We are trying to solidify those two things.
”It's a never-ending battle."
Indians at Tigers
First pitch: Saturday, 6:10 p.m.
TV/radio: FSD, 97.1 FM
RHP Triston McKenzie (2-1, 3.91), Indians: He beat the Tigers in his big-league debut on Aug. 22 and he’s not slowed down. Opponents are hitting .170 against his 93-mph four-seam and .125 against his slider (with a 50-percent whiff rate). He’s thrown 73 curve balls, seven have been put in play, all outs.
RHP Spencer Turnbull (4-3, 3.94), Tigers: Some of the metrics paint a bleak picture. Turnbull ranks in the lower 20 percentile in exit velocity, hard-hit rate, expected ERA, weighted on-base average and strikeout percentage. And yet, opponents are hitting under .200 against his four-seam, slider and change-up. Enigma.