Chicago — Put yourself in Akil Baddoo’s shoes for a minute.
He’s 22 years old. He didn’t play at all last year. The year before that, before he had elbow surgery, he was playing in Grapefruit League parks — Bradenton, Port St. Lucie, Jupiter, Port Charlotte. In 2018, in Low-A, he made the prairie circuit, playing in remote yards in Peoria, Kane County, Beloit, Clinton.
Look at him now. On this road trip alone he’s going to play in the smallish, wind-ruffled outfield at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, then to the cathedral in New York and play in one biggest left fields in baseball, and then go try to negotiate the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston.
“Everything is new to him,” manager AJ Hinch said before the game Tuesday. “I’ve been impressed with his openness to compete in the middle of all this. He expects to do well. He doesn’t pout. He doesn’t get down when he’s getting punched-out.
“He went through that stretch where the swing-and-miss started to show up and really, you can’t tell — other than he wants to do better. He wants to be a guy. I can appreciate that.”
Baddoo, the Tigers Rule 5 rookie, entered the game Tuesday hitting .259 with a .947 OPS and a 162 OPS-plus. That in itself surpasses the most optimistic hope anyone inside or outside the organization could have had for a player who had never seen a pitch above A-ball and hadn’t played in nearly two years.
He’s produced four doubles, three triples and four home runs in the first 17 games of his career. No other rookie in the history of the game can lay claim to that kind of production in their first 17 big-league games. He leads the American League in triples. He is second among rookies in slugging percentage (.667) and home runs.
All of that despite going through a wretched 4 for 27 stretch with 17 strikeouts in his last eight games.
“It’s baseball,” Baddoo said. “There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, lot of bumps and bruises. But you’ve got to keep going and stay even keel. Continue to have fun and don’t lose sight of that. That’s what I’m going to continue to do.
“I am going to stay positive and stick with my approach.”
It was inevitable that pitchers around the league would adjust their arsenal and try to find and exploit weaknesses.
“Akil has had to adjust to a few less challenge fastballs over the plate,” Hinch said. “When he broke onto the scene, they challenged him with strikes to see how he’d adjust. Then he got off to the hot start and there were no more free strikes. They’re pitching to him from the onset of the at-bat.
“They’re not showing him the same thing twice. Sometimes they pitch him firm and sometimes they spin him a ton. It’s been different looks from different teams.”
Baddoo didn’t want to get specific about the adjustments teams have been making against him. He just reiterated that he was maintaining his confidence and his approach.
“Just play my game,” he said. “Pitchers do their homework just like I do my homework. We get the kinds of pitches thrown at us and we make adjustments off of that … Pitchers are just competing. They’re trying to throw whatever they can to get me out. That’s what they’re doing and that’s their goal.
“My goal is to hit them.”
Baddoo struck out in his first two at-bats on Monday, then got the green light on 3-0 and drove a fastball to the track in left-center field. In his last at-bat, in a 3-2 game in the ninth, he drove another ball deep to left-center. This one bounced off the wall, inches from being a game-tying home run.
“They can’t tell me, ‘Oh, you got to do a couple more push-ups,’” Baddoo joked of his teammates ribbing him for having warning-track power. “I put a good swing on it. Glad I was able to get a triple out of it.”
As much as we all focus on his adjustments at the plate, hitting is but a small part Baddoo’s overall education and indoctrination into the big leagues.
“That’s like one-one hundredth of what’s going on in Akil’s world right now,” Hinch said. “With the information that’s going on running the bases, his defensive positioning, throwing to the right bases, the tempo of playing balls off the wall — he’s getting feedback on virtually everything except how he walks on the field. That’s about the only thing we’re letting him do his way.”
That was only a slight exaggeration, though Hinch and the coaching staff have been careful not to overload him. It’s a thin line to walk between providing him with the tools to succeed and paralyzing his natural athleticism and instincts for the game.
“He’s been able to handle it physically and mentally,” Hinch said. “It’s about competing when you play. You are not trying to correct every swing. You’re not trying to give him feedback on every single move he makes on the field.”
You have to let him play.
“He’s one of the most fun guys to watch play on our team,” Hinch said. “You don’t want it to become an orchestrated robotic style of play out there. Let Akil be Akil. Let the helmet fly off. Let him run down balls in the outfield. Let him take big swings because when he connects, he can be electrifying.”
AROUND THE HORN
…Jeimer Candelario posted two-hit games on Sunday and Monday and now has 27 multi-hit games since the start of 2020. That’s second-most in the American League and tied for fourth in baseball.
…The Tigers starting pitching allowed 99 hits through the first 23 games, the fewest given up by a starting rotation in that span in club history. The 3.87 ERA before Tuesday is the 15th lowest in club history through 23 games.
…The Tigers have a four-man taxi squad for this three-city trip: left-handed pitcher Ian Krol, right-hander Kyle Funkhouser, catcher-utility man Eric Haase and outfielder Derek Hill.
Tigers at White Sox
TV/Radio: BSDet, 97.1
RHP Casey Mize (1-2, 5.23), Tigers: Will the real Casey Mize please stand up? After pitching seven efficient shutout innings in Houston, getting a lot of early soft contract with his splitter and slider, he’s posted two rough outings in a row, allowing 11 runs in 9.2 innings combined in starts at Oakland and against the Royals at Comerica.
LHP Carlos Rodon (3-0, 0.47), White Sox: Three starts, 19 innings, one no-hitter (against Cleveland), 24 strikeouts, eight walks and just one earned run — a home run by Jordan Luplow. How’s that for a start to a season? Right-handed hitters are 4 for 46 against him; lefties 1 for 16. He hasn’t given up a hit off his slider yet.