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The Candy-Man Can

The Candyman was always a bit of an odd character in the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.  He seemed to be a kindly, harmless melo-phile, but what if that’s just scratching the surface?  The internet has loads of ideas: was he a plant by Wonka to ensure that Charlie Buckett ended up with the last golden ticket?  Is he the world’s foremost sugar propagandist?  Is he on the take by every dentist in town?  Can anyone get into the mind of that inscrutable candy peddler?

Alas, the Candyman remains a mystery.  His intentions and grand designs may never be known.  On the bright side, there’s a different Candyman in town whose contributions and importance are becoming clearer by the day – Jeimer Candelario, the Reds third baseman, who’s undergone a mid-season transformation that’s seen him go from downright abysmal to outright unstoppable.  And for the Reds, this sudden conversion couldn’t have happened at a better time.

To say that the Reds have been up-and-down in 2024 is putting it mildly; most roller coasters aren’t even this bumpy.  From Opening Day to right now, there hasn’t been one moment where you could definitively say the Reds were firing on all cylinders.  The starting pitching has (mostly) been there.  From Hunter Greene’s emergence to Andrew Abbott’s steadiness to Nick Lodolo’s filthiness, the Reds have to be pleased with the performance of their young rotation.  It’s everything else that’s going haywire.

The bullpen and especially the offense have been brutally inconsistent.  It’s wonderful that the Reds starters are giving the team a chance to win every single day, but when you’re rolling the dice on holding a lead – let alone having a lead in the first place – being stuck a game or two below .500 shouldn’t surprise anyone.  But in the same way that the Candyman was possibly a deus ex machina for Charlie to fulfill all his wishes and dreams, the Reds’ Candy-man is proving to be a similarly sneaky weapon.

Freddie Freeman.  Rafael Devers.  Bryce Harper.  Bobby Whitt Jr.  Juan Soto.  Marcell Ozuna.      What do these names have in common?  Well, for one, they’re all in the top 20 in the MLB in slugging percentage this year.  The other?  They all have fewer extra-base hits this month than Jeimer Candelario.  The Candy-man has as many extra-base hits in June as Shohei Ohtani and Aaron Judge.  He’s finding his groove, and it feels like he’s smoking the ball every time he connects, and last night’s two homer game against the Boston Red Sox is just further evidence that Candelario is a different player than he was for much of spring.

The numbers back it up.  Since June 1, Candelario is batting .347/.351/.736 with eight home runs, four doubles, seventeen runs batted in, and a partridge in a pear tree.  His slugging percentage ranks fifth in all of baseball in that span.  He’s given a Reds offense that’s been adrift a much-needed life vest.

Too often this year, the Reds offense has felt like an individual endeavor.  At the start of the year, it was Spencer Steer who looked like a superhero.  Then Steer cooled off, but Elly De La Cruz took up the mantle.  Elly burned bright – for a time – but he’s entered a vicious slump since May.  He shouldn’t be singled out, though – May was a disaster for the entire lineup.  A team .213 batting average in the month is testament enough to that.

I can’t make up my mind about how much blame for the Reds inconsistencies on offense I should assign to Reds manager David Bell, but I’ll grant him this: if he knew that Candelario was going to turn into Manny Ramirez once the heat was turned up, I can give him a pass for basically turning the first two months plus of the season into an extended spring training for the Candy-man.  Without Candelario’s steady presence at the plate, it’s petrifying to imagine where the Reds offense would be.

Although Candelario hasn’t been this dominant force all year, he was still one of the few Reds capable of driving the ball with consistency.  Even during his slow start to the season, he was amongst the team leaders in slugging percentage.  Now, though, he’s head and shoulders over the rest of the lineup.  He’s currently leading the team in slugging percentage (.501), home runs (14), doubles (17), total bases (127), is tied for the team lead in hits (64), and is second in batting average (.255).  In June alone, Candy’s slugging percentage (.578) is over 200 points higher than Jonathan India (.371), the next highest Red.

He’s done a lot of his damage early in games.  In the first inning, he’s batting .387/.460/1.032 with five home runs, three doubles, a triple and eleven runs batted in.  He’s also been excellent against power pitchers (.302/.345/.623), which is extra important for a Reds lineup that’s really struggled (.208/.294/.342) this year against pitchers with high strikeout and walk rates.  Subtract Candelario’s fourteen home runs and the Reds go from slightly-below league average in that category to tied with the abysmal Chicago White Sox for worst in the league, and it doesn't stop there.  If it wasn’t for the Candy-man, the Reds offense would be in baseball’s basement in pretty much every significant offensive category.

Candelario’s resurgence couldn’t be happening at a better time.  The Reds lineup is still stuck in a miserable slump.  Candy’s hot streak doesn’t fix all their problems, but it gives the Reds a little time to get some important pieces back and for others to get their swings right.  T.J. Friedl has already made a big difference since returning from a series of early-season injuries, and with Noelvi Marté due back any day and Matt McLain eying a return in August, there’s reason to hope that much, much better days are on the horizon for the Reds offense.  Candelario, meanwhile, remains the Reds drum beat until reinforcements arrive.  Who can make the ball fly?  The Candy-man Can.

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