DETROIT — The Tigers, looking to turn the corner from years of struggles, find signs of hope in one of the least likely places. A Rule 5 Draft pick not only cracks the Opening Day roster, but he takes off for a historic start that carries the Tigers with him. In the process, he becomes a cult hero in Motown.
Fifteen years before Baddoo became the first player in modern Major League history to hit a grand slam, another home run and a walk-off hit in his first three career games, Shelton made his own historic start. He hit nine home runs in his first 13 games of 2006, the fastest hitter to reach nine homers in a season in American League history. He finished April with a .326 average and 10 home runs, and he was the hero of the Tigers’ surprise start. He hit .260 with six homers over the next three months, was optioned to Triple-A Toledo in August and played in just 50 more Major League games after that season.
But records and Rule 5 aside, is the comparison fair? Not really. Here are a handful of differences:
1. Shelton wasn’t in his Rule 5 season when he did what you remember him doing
It’s a technicality, but a big one. Shelton was the first pick of the Rule 5 Draft in December … of 2003. The Tigers carried him on their roster in ’04, two years before he became famous, but he played in just 27 games, made 11 starts and saw 56 plate appearances, batting 9-for-46 with one home run, nine walks and 14 strikeouts. He didn’t make his Major League debut until the ninth game that season, pinch-hitting in an 11-0 loss. He spent part of that year on the injured list, which allowed him to get an 18-game rehab assignment at Toledo.
With Shelton’s full rights acquired, the Tigers optioned Shelton to Toledo to open the 2005 season, but they called him up at the end of May. He spent the rest of that year in Detroit, batting .299 with 18 homers, 59 RBIs and a 132 OPS+.
2. Baddoo has way less experience
As the previous point noted, Shelton had 134 games of big league experience before he caught most fans’ attention in 2006. He also had 339 Minor League games by then, including 273 in the Pirates’ system before the Tigers drafted him. Baddoo has 233 career Minor League games, but none above Class A. He didn’t play in any games after May 2019 due to Tommy John surgery, and he didn’t play anywhere in 2020 thanks to the Minor League shutdown. Shelton was also older, having played at the University of Utah before the Pirates made him their 33rd-round Draft pick in 2001. Baddoo was a second-round pick out of high school by the Twins.
3. Baddoo is a more well-rounded player
The scouting report on Shelton wasn’t complicated: He was a first baseman with a good eye who could hit to all fields with very good pull power. Baddoo is a better athlete with a more well-rounded skillset. His walk tendency in the Minors is similar, but he stole twice as many bases in his last full Minor League season (24) as Shelton stole in his entire pro career (12). As Wednesday showed, Baddoo also has the speed and line-drive power to use Comerica Park’s outfield gaps for triples. That speed and athleticism also play in the outfield, where he manned all three spots in Spring Training. So on days when Baddoo doesn’t contribute at the plate, he can impact games in other areas, something Shelton really couldn’t do.
4. Baddoo isn’t facing the pressure of a contending team
This is what doomed Shelton beyond the scouting reports. His hot start coincided with the Tigers’ best start in years, captivating a fan base that hadn’t seen a winning season in 13 seasons. It also coincided with manager Jim Leyland’s arrival with a win-now mandate.
The more Shelton hit, the more the expectations and pressure built.
“It became hard to repeat things in a manner of what that first month was like,” Shelton said a few years ago. “In my eyes, it felt a little unfair at times. To me, that’s an unfair expectation of anybody.”
Baddoo, despite all the attention, is in a different situation. The Tigers want to begin turning the corner on their rebuild, but nobody is expecting them to challenge for the division. Despite Baddoo’s heroics, the Tigers went 3-3 on their homestand.
5. Baddoo isn’t playing every day
Not only had Shelton beaten out Carlos Pena at first base in Spring Training in 2006, the Tigers released Pena at the end of camp, making Shelton the everyday starter. He started each of Detroit’s first 56 games before getting his first game off in June. He kept starting even as his struggles compounded. Not until the Tigers traded for Sean Casey at the July 31 Trade Deadline did Shelton get benched, at which point he was optioned.
Baddoo, even with all his feats, is an extra outfielder. He isn’t even the fourth outfielder in a five-man mix. The Tigers aren’t relying on him every day. Manager A.J. Hinch can pick and choose his spots to play Baddoo when the matchup seems favorable (like Monday against Twins right-hander Matt Shoemaker) and use him off the bench other days (like Tuesday, when lefty J.A. Happ started).