Why Detroit Tigers’ Akil Baddoo rebounding from ’embarrassing’ play bodes well for future

Detroit Free Press

Believe it or not, Detroit Tigers rookie Akil Baddoo isn’t perfect.

The Rule 5 draft pick put his inexperience on display in Monday’s 6-2 win over the Houston Astros. Seeking his second home run in the series opener, Baddoo drove a fastball into the right-center field gap. He flicked his bat, trotted slowly out of the batter’s box and slapped hands with first base coach Ramon Santiago.

The ball never went beyond the wall at Minute Maid Park.

Baddoo turned what should have been a triple into a 403-foot double, all because he took time to admire what he thought was a home run. This is a mistake manager AJ Hinch won’t tolerate.

“It was embarrassing for him and Ramon,” Hinch said. “It’s certainly not something that anybody thought was funny. It was frustrating for him, and he’s really hard on himself. He came over and apologized to me because he knew it was the wrong play.

“The fact that he acknowledged it and is man enough to come and admit it changes my entire reaction about it, to be honest. It’s a simple mistake. We can’t turn it into a habit.”

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Looking past Baddoo’s four home runs and walk-off single in eight games, he is nearly the same always evolving 22-year-old he was a few months ago. He must deal with being the most talked-about rookie in the majors, yet he still views each day as an opportunity to learn and continue his quest to discover establishment.

It’s the little things, like the awareness to apologize for Monday’s mindless miscalculation, that boosts Baddoo’s maturation, just as much the on-field lessons provided by Hinch, hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh and bench coach/outfield instructor George Lombard.

“He’s very comfortable in his own skin, and he’s very comfortable at this level,” Hinch said. “This is very early in this ramp-up into the season, and we’re seeing just about everything thrown his direction. He just needs to keep being Akil. Akil fits right here in the big leagues.”

Baddoo cleaned up his act as soon as his first at-bat in Tuesday’s 8-2 win, the first series victory in Houston for the Tigers since May 2013. Facing Jake Odorizzi in the third inning, he hit a splitter 348 feet to left-center field.

He darted out of the batter’s box and touched all four bases in 19.3 seconds, the 13th fastest sprint speed on a home run this season. At the time, there had been 376 homers in 2021.

“I was just making sure I didn’t make that same mistake again,” Baddoo said. “I’m running out everything. I don’t care if it’s a bomb, I’m still running it out. Lesson learned.”

The home run off Odorizzi tied the game, 1-1, and Baddoo sparked the Tigers to a five-homer performance. Nomar Mazara and Renato Nunez each hit two-run blasts in the fourth inning. Wilson Ramos produced a two-homer game to grab the major-league lead with six this season.

In the fourth inning, Baddoo singled against Odorizzi with one out to chase him from the game.

“As soon as he hit that homer today, everybody in the dugout was jumping,” Ramos said. “We need that energy in the dugout. That makes us all feel more confidence and do a better job. That’s all we need, to go out there and have fun. The emotion in the dugout, that’s very important.”

This season, Baddoo is 9-for-23 (.391) with one double, one triple, four home runs, 10 RBIs, one walk and six strikeouts in eight games.

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And Baddoo gambled on arguing balls and strikes — which can lead to an ejection — for the first time in his career. He was called out on a fastball in a full count by home plate umpire Stu Scheurwater in the sixth inning against reliever Blake Taylor.

On two feet, he jumped straight up, a sign of disappointment in the call. With two fingers, he told Scheurwater that he made mistakes on two pitches during the at-bat — the first- and sixth-pitch called strikes.

Baddoo didn’t swing his bat once.

“Heat of the moment things,” Baddoo said. “Just competing out there. What happened happened.”

Scheurwater walked back toward the Tigers’ dugout, talking in Baddoo’s ear. It’s unclear what was said, but Hinch jumped out to defend his player. More importantly, he wanted Baddoo in the dugout without an ejection.

“It’s an emotional game,” Hinch said. “He was locked into the at-bat and felt like he missed a pitch or two, and he told the umpire that. Stu is a really good guy and a good umpire, but he told him right back to him.

“I mean, it wasn’t that confrontational. I think it looked a little bit more contentious than what it was when I got out there. Akil was fighting for himself a little bit. Just competing.”

Hinch wasn’t upset with Baddoo for pleading his case to Scheurwater. Frankly, the situation “didn’t bother me a bit,” Hinch said, adding he liked seeing those emotions from the up-and-coming center fielder.

“It’s a good sign,” Hinch said. “He needs to say his piece and get out of there. I don’t want our players to hang in there with the umpires too long, but you can stand up for yourself professionally. You just want to make sure he’s aware there’s a line to be drawn. … I think we need to do it with respect, and there was no further issue. And there won’t be big issues with this team.”

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What Tuesday’s disagreement with Scheurwater details is that Baddoo is becoming more confident and mature with each game he plays. The home runs, and records, are piling up, as are the correctable mistakes and learning experiences.

There’s a lot on Baddoo’s plate, considering he hadn’t played above High-A in the minor leagues before this season.

Baddoo is the first Tiger to drive in a run in at least six of his first eight career games since Don Ross in 1931. He is the only Tiger to record four homers in his first eight big-league games. Kyle Lewis — the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year — was the most recent MLB player to collect four homers and 10 RBIs in his first eight games in 2019.

As it seems impossible for the Tigers to keep him out of the lineup, Baddoo reminds himself not to let the instantaneous success make him conceited. He knows that just as quickly as his rise began, it can crumble.

That’s why he’s always learning.

“I just want to be a sponge as much as I can from the veterans we have here,” Baddoo said. “I’ve learned a lot from the guys here, and we’re going to continue to learn. There’s always room to grow and learn, and that’s what I’m here for.”

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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