Candelario repeats as Tiger of the Year

November 9th, 2021

DETROIT -- If needed any further evidence of his place at the heart of the Tigers’ rise out of rebuilding, a second consecutive Tiger of the Year Award should help. The slugging third baseman became a repeat winner Tuesday after taking the majority of the vote from members of the Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

“When you have a mind that you want to win ballgames, a lot of good things happen,” Candelario said on a video conference with reporters. “You’re competing. You’re not worried about your numbers. You worry about winning, and if you have that mentality, everything is going to take care of itself.”

Candelario captured nine of 18 first-place votes. Others receiving votes included , and .

Candelario is the first back-to-back winner since Miguel Cabrera in 2012 and 2013, the same years he won American League MVP honors. Candelario is the seventh back-to-back winner since the award began in 1965, a list that includes:

Miguel Cabrera, 2012-13
Travis Fryman, 1995-96
Cecil Fielder, 1990-92
Alan Trammell, 1987-88
Ron LeFlore, 1977-78
Denny McLain, 1968-69

“To be part of that group, it’s a nice reward,” Candelario said. “To be Tiger of the Year back-to-back, it’s a pleasure as a player. It’s a blessing. It’s something that I put a lot of effort [into], but coming as a team and having a winning mentality, it helps a lot.”

Candelario joins Fryman, Fielder and McLain as the only members on the list to win back-to-back Tiger of the Year awards before his age-28 season. Candelario turns 28 on Nov. 24.

What was once an award dominated by Cabrera and Justin Verlander had become more of a year-to-year honor for first-time winners in recent years. Candelario’s quiet emergence from a prospect acquired from the Cubs with one of the first moves of the Tigers rebuild, to a quality two-way corner infielder on a young team has helped him stake his claim.

It wasn’t easy. Candelario batted just .224 as the Tigers’ everyday third baseman while battling an injured left wrist in 2018, then bounced between Triple-A Toledo and Detroit three times in an injury-shortened 2019 campaign. His strong work ethic and the Tigers’ patience eventually paid off.

“It helped me a lot,” Candelario said of the struggles, “because I know in the big leagues, you've got to earn it, and you've got to work really hard to stick. I told myself, 'You've got to prove that you belong here.’”

Candelario won Tiger of the Year in 2020 with a strong but abbreviated 52-game campaign, during which he posted an .872 OPS. While his OPS dropped to .795 over 149 games this year, his overall production remained steady, including 42 doubles to tie for the Major League lead.

In 2021, Candelario batted .271/.351/.443 with 16 home runs, 67 RBIs and a 122 OPS+. He led the Tigers in Wins Above Replacement by both the baseball-reference and Fangraphs calculations and ranked fifth among American League third basemen in the latter. His 3.7 bWAR was the highest by any Tiger since 2017, and the fourth highest by a Tigers third baseman in the Comerica Park era (since 2000).

“Candy’s a very steady presence,” manager A.J. Hinch said in August. “He’s not the most vocal, he’s not necessarily the loudest, but he’s the most consistent. And that counts for something, especially when you see him go on stretches. You look up and his OPS is around .800, he’s getting double-digit homers, he’s leading the league in doubles. That’s a good player, and if you’re not watching every day, you’re not going to appreciate what he’s been doing.”

Candelario’s single-game highlights included a two-homer game Sept. 12 against the Rays with a game-tying two-run homer in the 10th inning, keeping Detroit alive for an 11th-inning win. It marked just the third game-tying homer in extra innings by a Tiger who was down to his final strike since 1916. Candelario went 4-for-4 with four runs scored on Sept. 3 in a 15-5 win at Cincinnati. The games were part of Candelario’s strong finish, including six homers and 19 RBIs from Sept. 1 to season’s end, and a .282 average with an .882 OPS after the All-Star break. He had dedicated his second half to his grandmother, who passed away in June.

“I want her to be proud of me,” Candelario said. “That’s why this award means a lot for me and my family.”

While Candelario’s average exit velocity and hard-hit rate dropped from 2020 to 2021, he was actually more aggressive while trusting in his ability to make contact. His 21.6 percent strikeout rate was easily his lowest in a full season, and his 23.4 percent swing-and-miss rate on pitches was the lowest of any season in his career. With an improvement in his line-drive rate, it’s not hard to see more improvement in his production.

“I think [it’s] just my mentality and being in a great position to attack the strike zone,” Candelario said. “For me, that’s what it was all about. … When you get to the big leagues and you know the strike zone, you want to be ready, because if you’re not ready to hit, you’re going to be in trouble. So for me, it was just being in an attack mode, but attack strikes.

“I don’t want to be guessing. I just want to see the ball and hit the ball.”

The Tigers are eager to see what more he can do. After giving Isaac Paredes a chance to compete for the starting job at third base last Spring Training, Hinch made Candelario his everyday third baseman from Opening Day on, while letting Paredes transition to second base at Triple-A Toledo and having Schoop work at first and second base in Detroit.

Candelario could well have a big-name shortstop playing beside him if the Tigers strike in the Hot Stove market like Candelario did at the plate. But after battling to find his place in Detroit, Candelario has played his way into the core of the team.

“I know [general manager] Al [Avila] is doing a really good job,” Candelario said. “He’s going to select the pieces that we need to keep adding on and compete with other teams. There’s a lot of free agents. It’s going to be special. You’ve just got to wait and see how it’s going to be. But I know that we’re going to be really good in 2022.”