DETROIT -- The breakout of Jeimer Candelario -- three years after his debut with the Tigers and one year after his future in Detroit seemed in question -- has been a reward in patience for first-year hitting coach Joe Vavra, who watched Candelario open the season with an 0-for-17 slump. It’s the kind of success story that gets the 60-year-old Vavra to the ballpark, ready to embrace the long days in the batting cage, where he takes on the challenge of finding answers for Detroit’s young hitters.
While Candelario and rookie shortstop Willi Castro have emerged as key cogs in the Tigers’ lineup this year, Vavra is working with third baseman Isaac Paredes and outfielder Daz Cameron to help them through their first-season slumps. It’s long work that probably won’t result in quick fixes in a short season. But it’s work that Vavra relishes.
“It’s a great job,” he said Friday afternoon before hitters began arriving at Comerica Park for their pregame work. “It's frustrating, but you take the greatness with the frustrating part of it. I don't like to see failure. I don’t like to see kids fail. I like to see them do great things, but you really have to stay positive. You see mechanical flaws, but it's really hard to transition or get rid of a mechanical flaw when you're at this point in time of the season. You do try to transition and change some -- tweak here and there. And most of them, it's just that, it's a tweaking. It isn’t a major overhaul.”
Here’s where four of Detroit’s young hitters stand:
The 23-year-old continues to chase pitches and has a similar strikeout rate to last year, but his contact has been more solid. He entered Friday batting .346 against fastballs with a .519 slugging percentage, up from .277 and .362, respectively, last year, according to Statcast. But he’s also hitting .346 off breaking balls and .350 against offspeed pitches.
“He believes he has the ability to hit any pitch, and that’s a good thing for a young hitter,” Vavra said. “There’s a lot of guys that know they can’t hit a curveball and know they have trouble with a slider or changeup. He’s 100 percent accountable and he really trusts his natural ability to hit any pitch.”
The 21-year-old has broken out of the 0-for-23 slump from Aug. 30-Sept. 9 that soured his fast start, and he has doubled in three straight games, including an opposite-field liner off Shane Bieber on Thursday.
“He’s a great project. I enjoy working with him,” Vavra said. “After they started to figure him out, he started getting sped out a little bit in his mind and he started coming off the outside corner, chasing some pitches. … More recently, he’s been more aggressive early in counts, but he’s cleaned up some things. He doesn’t have as much head movement.”
Cameron’s two-run single off Lucas Giolito last weekend in Chicago has not been the springboard some initially hoped it would be, as he continues to adjust to Major League pitching. He’ll likely lose some playing time to utility player Harold Castro, who returned from the injured list Friday to add a left-handed bat to the lineup.
“The pitching up here is completely different than anything they've seen,” Vavra said. “It's more precise, velocity could be a little higher. They locate the pitch that much better and they can set them up -- and so the mind spins. It's hard to stay with the plan that they set out before they went into the batter's box. One pitch can take them out of their plan. They have a tendency to stay on that last pitch, maybe a fastball inside, and that’s a pitcher’s intent to get him off of the outside corner, or vice versa. And their mind’s continuously churning and you can’t really slow that down.”
The center fielder entered Friday 0-for-7 in sporadic action, but he drew an eight-pitch walk against Bieber on Thursday after fouling back a couple fastballs to extend the at-bat. Manager Ron Gardenhire hinted that Hill could get more playing time if/when the Tigers are eliminated from the playoff race.