Fairy tale over, it’s time for Detroit Tigers’ Akil Baddoo to put in the work

Detroit Free Press

If Detroit Tigers rookie Akil Baddoo‘s career had a “Once upon a time …” beginning, it’s clear that he has a ways to reach a fairy tale-like “happily ever after.”

The adjustment period of his development is just beginning. He has a high ceiling, with speed on the bases, pop in his bat and mental fortitude, making this stage of Baddoo’s career the most important. It’s a time when the organization starts to understand if he’s a long-term answer or a one-hit wonder.

The 22-year-old, a Rule 5 draft pick, opened his MLB career by shocking the baseball world: A home run on his first career pitch, a grand slam in his second game, a walk-off single in his third game and two home runs in Houston against the Astros.

“Everything is new for him,” manager AJ Hinch said Tuesday. “It’s a lot of firsts, which you’ve heard me say before. I love the adjustment part of it.”

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Baddoo went 10-for-27 (.370) with two doubles, one triple, four home runs, 11 RBIs, one walk and eight strikeouts in his first nine games. Since then, though, he is 4-for-27 (.148) with two doubles, two triples, two RBIs, one walk and 17 strikeouts in eight games.

When Baddoo emerged early in the season, teams challenged him with fastballs in the strike zone.

“And then when he got off to that hot start, there are no more free strikes,” Hinch said. “They’re pitching to him from the onset of the at-bat and not showing him the same thing twice. Sometimes they pitch him firm, sometimes they spin them a ton. It’s been different for a couple of different teams.”

During the eighth inning of Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals, Baddoo took a first-pitch curve from reliever Greg Holland to put himself in a 1-0 count. Then, he found his pitch — a fastball toward the top of the strike zone — for a triple off the top of the left-field wall. He represented the game-tying run, but the next three batters stranded him 90 feet from home.

“I actually worked out, too,” Baddoo said. “They can’t tell me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do a couple more pushups’ because I did that. I mean, I put a good swing on it. Unfortunate, but I was glad I was able to get a little triple out of it.”

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The adjustment stage isn’t solely about his at-bats and the way pitchers attack, Hinch said.

The Tigers are giving him constant feedback about running the bases, defensive positioning, throwing to the correct bases and knowing how to field balls coming off the outfield walls, to name a few focal points. Even the simple aspects, such as finding time to lift weights during a lengthy stretch of day games, is a part of discovering his routine in the majors.

While Hinch doesn’t want to overload Baddoo with too much feedback, it’s crucial for him to develop a personal regimen that makes him comfortable and brings on-field success.

“Just doing my thing,” Baddoo said Tuesday, “but also learning from what I have in front of me, like the veterans, the coaching staff and everything. Just learning how to be a big leaguer and how to maintain and continue to be successful.”

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Baddoo has earned opportunities in left field (eight games), center field (six games) and right field (five games).

And he’s doing so in ballparks new to him: Guaranteed Rate Field, Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park — homes to the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, respectively — are next on his list. Of course, Comerica Park has challenges of its own, too.

“This ballpark has its own way of playing the wind, and it’s a relatively shallow outfield,” Hinch said about Guaranteed Rate Field. “We’re going to go to New York, and he’s got to go out in left field. It’s the biggest left field in baseball, and it’s got all sorts of different angles. And then we’re going to back that up with Fenway, which is super tricky to play. If you’re in left, you’re playing super shallow. If you’re in right, you’re playing really deep.”

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Through 17 games this season, Baddoo has a .259 batting average with two walks and 25 strikeouts. That ties him with Robbie Grossman and Niko Goodrum for the team lead in strikeouts. Entering the year, he hadn’t played above High-A in the minor leagues.

Now, after a magical start, Baddoo’s toughest test is underway.

“I’m just sticking with my same approach and playing my game,” Baddoo said. “Pitchers are going to do their homework. We do our homework, as well. We get what pitch is thrown at us and have to make adjustments from that. It’s been a lot of ups and downs, just keep going and stay positive. Just keep playing.”

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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