Why Detroit Tigers’ Akil Baddoo isn’t a surprise: ‘He’s going to continue to do great things’

Detroit Free Press

Easter Sunday was a momentous day for both Baltimore Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins and Detroit Tigers outfielder Akil Baddoo.

Mullins went 5-for-5 with three doubles and one walk against the Boston Red Sox. Baddoo, a Rule 5 draft pick, made his MLB debut and crushed an opposite-field home run on the first pitch he saw against Cleveland at Comerica Park.

“I called him that night,” Mullins told the Free Press.

The two friends gazed at each other through FaceTime for 10 seconds before speaking.

All they could do was laugh.

“I knew he was ecstatic because I remember my debut and how that felt to have my family there,” Mullins said. “For him to hit the home run, he was able to point to his family. I watched the videos, and I was like, ‘Boy, you know you’re doing them wrong out there!'”

MORE BADDOO COVERAGE:

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Baddoo’s homer began a series of events hard to believe, even for a fairy tale. The 22-year-old launched an opposite-field grand slam in his second game, then a walk-off single in his third game, then an RBI triple and an outfield assist in his fourth game.

“It’s literally been something new every day with him,” said Tigers starter Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018. “It’s been unbelievable.”

But this is no surprise to Mullins. At 26 years old, the former 13th-round draft pick has seen enough in his four-year MLB career to confidently proclaim that Baddoo — a second-round pick in 2016 out of Salem High School in Georgia — is not a fluke.

Robin Cope, who has worked with Baddoo since he was 15, isn’t shocked by these moments, either. Cope, 47, played with Alex Rodriguez in the Seattle Mariners’ minor-league system but never reached the majors. He is now an agent for players, including Mullins.

Simply, Mullins and Cope know talent when they see talent.

And Baddoo could be a special player.

“I’ll tell you another thing, and you can print it,” Cope, who doesn’t represent Baddoo, told the Free Press. “He needs to be the leadoff guy. He’s your everyday center fielder who should be batting leadoff, I kid you not. He can make it 1-0 on the first pitch, and he’ll make (pitchers) throw fastballs to Miggy (because of his threat to steal bases). Simple baseball.”

Mullins added: “We’re talking All-Star status. The list goes on and on. And I think he’s showing very early signs of that potential.”

‘Maturity, calmness, demeanor’

The reason Mullins and Cope are making these lofty claims — remember, Baddoo had 16 major league at-bats entering Sunday — is because of his makeup, from the confidence to the tools. There’s a belief he can be a mainstay for the Tigers, at the very least.

“One of the things we’ve talked about since Day 1 has been his maturity, calmness and demeanor,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “He doesn’t have a fast heart. There’s so much to like about him in those moments. Early in his career, he’s stepping up pretty big for us.”

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It wasn’t until 2016, swinging in the batting cage with Mullins, that Baddoo began to realized his potential. Mullins was gearing up for spring training with the Orioles. At the same time, Baddoo was prepping for his senior year in high school.

As a freshman, he moved up to varsity and started in the outfield. He then joined the GBSA Rays, a top-tier travel team in Atlanta with a hefty batch of MLB draft prospects, thanks to Cope’s suggestion.

Baddoo had to pick one of two paths: Display fearlessness or get eaten alive.

“He played with a lot of guys who are playing pro ball right now,” Cope said. “He played behind them, so he had to figure his way out and realize that he belonged. He had to get uncomfortable to get comfortable and realize who he was in his skin. At that point, you started to see the flash.”

In July 2015, Baddoo was the last player selected to join the roster for the East Coast Professional Showcase, an event operated by MLB scouts for the best high school players east of the Mississippi River. Baddoo’s team included seven first-round draft picks: Josh Lowe, Will Benson, Taylor Trammell, DL Hall, Carter Kieboom, Seth Beer and Cole Ragans.

Once again, Baddoo’s resiliency was tested. He passed.

But his hitting session with Mullins in 2016 changed everything.

“When you start to see your ball come off the bat, and it’s not far behind guys that are already getting paid to do this, you’re starting to really figure out that there’s something about me that’s real,” Cope said. “Once that started to take over, you could start to see the real Akil start to show up.”

The last three years

Like many of his teammates for the GBSA Rays and the East Coast Pro team, Baddoo was chosen in the MLB draft. He went in the second round (No. 74 overall) in 2016 to the Minnesota Twins. Four years later, the Twins — loaded with outfielders in the majors and minors — couldn’t afford to stash him away on the 40-man roster, thus leaving him unprotected in December’s Rule 5 draft.

The Tigers swooped in.

“He’s got the rare athletic ability to be a high-level defender in the outfield and really impact the ball from the left side of the plate,” Tigers GM Al Avila said after the draft. “We look forward to him showing it this coming season.”

MORE ABOUT BADDOO:

Detroit Tigers select OF Akil Baddoo in 2020 Rule 5 draft

MLB scouts project future for Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo

Despite the extreme expectations from Mullins and Cope, the past leads some to doubt Baddoo’s sudden rise to glory in Detroit. He tore up the lower minor leagues before crashing into a roadblock in 2018 with Low-A Cedar Rapids.

That year, Baddoo hit .243 and he struck out 124 times in 113 games — but he also had 22 doubles, 11 triples, 11 homers and 24 stolen bases. Essentially, he abandoned singles for the big hits, ignoring the increase in strikeouts, in hopes of gaining attention and jumping to the next level.

“You start putting pressure on yourself because you know you’re good,” Cope said. “But you know you don’t want to be in A-ball anymore. You want to be in Double-A, Triple-A. You got that taste, and you know the big leagues are close, so now you allow the game to speed up on you.”

Baddoo scuffled again in 2019 with High-A Fort Myers. He hit .214 with four homers in 29 games. He played his final minor-league contest on May 11, 2019, before needing Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow.

Then the minors were canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’M SORRY: I was wrong about Akil Baddoo. Here’s why I owe him an apology

Baddoo went nearly two years without playing baseball. He worked out near his hometown in Georgia at Ransom CrossFit and The Hood baseball facility. He studied Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds — lower-body movements, upper-body positioning when striking the ball, approach in the batter’s box, daily preparation and swagger.

Baddoo needed to understand exactly what made them successful.

“I kind of sit there and just analyze for hours and hours,” Baddoo said. “Slow-mo, over and over again. … I continue to analyze and actually look at what made them so great and what routine they had and what they carried inside themselves each and every day.”

Tempering expectations

For now, let’s pump the breaks on predicting Baddoo as the Tigers’ center fielder of the future. Although he has power and speed, he’s unlikely to become the leadoff hitter until he shows consistency. He isn’t close to being considered a marquee American League Rookie of the Year candidate, let alone a future All-Star or MVP.

He has only six career games, entering Sunday.

There’s a lot he must prove in the next couple of months, but he is “very determined” to make a lasting impact. At any point, the Tigers could offer him back to the Twins, but that’s unlikely to happen.

“I’m just loving that all my hard work is paying off,” Baddoo said. “Just continue that and stay mentally strong and carry that throughout the whole season.”

Yet it won’t be easy.

Mullins knows just how quickly a hot start can turn to shambles.

He went 6-for-64 (.094) through 22 games for the Orioles in 2019 — his second year in the majors — and was sent to Triple-A Norfolk, then Double-A Bowie, because of his woes.

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“I had success early in my career, back when I first debuted,” Mullins said. “Might have had a little complacency mixed in there. It led to struggle. Not only just a little bit. It kind of snowballed. Mentally, I had to develop my confidence again.”

As pitchers learned more about Mullins, he was unable to immediately adjust. Upon his return to the Orioles, he hit .271 through 48 games last season, though, and won the center field job this year in spring training.

Oftentimes, establishment requires a response to failure.

Baddoo’s toughness has been put on trial many times: GBSA Rays, East Coast Pro team, trying to do too much in the minors, Tommy John surgery, two years without baseball and a make-or-break spring training with the Tigers.

Surely, the up-and-comer will be tested again.

“It’s just a matter of making sure that his focus stays on his work,” Mullins said. “And that he doesn’t get a big head. It can happen with some guys. But I know his head is in the right place, and he’s going to continue to do great things.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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