How Detroit Tigers are preparing rookie Akil Baddoo for the future: ‘He’s a sponge’

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch never planned on putting outfielder Akil Baddoo in the starting lineup as much as he did early in the season.

But Baddoo, a 22-year-old Rule 5 draft pick, earned those opportunities.

“He was the talk of baseball when he got off to such a hot start,” manager AJ Hinch said Sunday. “The more we played him, he struggled a little bit. The game was speeding up on him. As he’s gotten more sporadic playing time, we’ve taken the opportunity in the game to talk to him a lot about situations.”

When Baddoo isn’t playing, he hovers around Hinch and bench coach George Lombard, who doubles as the outfield instructor. Entering the year without a taste of baseball above High-A in the minor leagues, he is growing up at the big-league level.

It’s not an easy task.

“We have to remind ourselves that as physically and emotionally mature as he is from a baseball perspective, we’ve got to keep giving him little tidbits and advice to let the game open up for him,” Hinch said. “I like how he’s been open to it.”

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If it were up to the Tigers, Baddoo would be in the minor leagues. Life in Double-A Erie would suit him well right now, playing alongside 20-year-old prospect Riley Greene. But right now, the Tigers can’t change where Baddoo calls home.

He must stay in the major leagues, as outlined by Rule 5 draft guidelines, for the entire 2021 season. If the organization removes him from the 26-man active roster, he will be placed on waivers and, assuming he clears, offered back to his previous team — the Minnesota Twins — for $50,000.

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The Twins would gladly pay for Baddoo’s return, but the Tigers don’t want to lose a potential outfielder of the future. Therefore, Baddoo must learn the ropes in the majors. (After the 2021 season, he can be sent down to the minors without repercussions.)

“I told him at the end of the year, he’s either going to love George or he’s going to hate George,” Hinch said. “George’s response is, ‘Well, he’s going to be a better player. I know that.'”

Through 33 games, Baddoo has a .247 batting average, six doubles, three triples, four home runs, 19 RBIs, 10 walks and 40 strikeouts. He has stolen four bases in four attempts.

These numbers were boosted by an unbelievable 14-game stretch from April 4-22 to begin his MLB career: 13-for-44 (.295) with four homers and 13 RBIs. He tossed in four doubles and two triples, as well. He homered on the first big-league pitch he saw, launched a grand slam and notched a walk-off single — all in his first three games.

Then, Baddoo went through a 15-game slump. From April 23 through May 14, Baddoo started 12 of the 15 games he played. He lost his everyday role by going 4-for-39 (.103) with two extra-base hits.

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Nationally, the spotlight isn’t on Baddoo anymore. He hasn’t hit a home run since April 13 in Houston. His inconsistency, combined with occasional glimpses of what he could become, make him a developmental project.

“It’s been nice watching him mature and grow,” Hinch said. “Arguably could have been a little unfair what all was put in front of him at the beginning of the season.”

That’s why Hinch and Lombard often pull him aside in the dugout during games. He studies the opposing pitchers, learning how to get a good jump and steal a base. He pays attention to defensive positioning and pre-pitch tendencies. The Tigers need him to be an above-average defender. He watches the offensive approaches of future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera, rising third baseman Jeimer Candelario and veteran outfielder Robbie Grossman.

Baddoo is simply doing his homework because he will be tested in the future.

“Just sticking with my routine and simplifying things,” Baddoo said Saturday. “Just sticking with that and learning as much as I can. Believe it or not, when you’re not playing, you can learn a lot. That’s definitely what I’m doing so far.

“It can be pitch recognition. It can be, as far as my swing, just staying simple. Mentally, as well, just being simple and trying not to overload my head with a whole bunch of things and not be ready to hit at that point.”

A piece of the past

In his last three starts entering Monday, he went 6-for-10 (.600) with one double, three RBIs, three walks and three strikeouts.

These results serve as a reminder that Baddoo has a chance to be special.

After traveling from Seattle to Kansas City, Hinch and Lombard took Baddoo to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on Thursday before facing the Royals for a three-game series. They wanted to get to know Baddoo on a personal level, and they hoped he would enjoy learning more about baseball’s history.

“He’s a sponge,” Hinch said. “He wants to learn a lot.”

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To help Baddoo reach his potential, Hinch and Lombard also draw on their experiences as players. Hinch played 350 games in the majors across parts of seven seasons, with a lifetime .219 batting average. Lombard played 144 games across parts of six seasons, with a career .220 batting average.

“What experience teaches you is you’ve got a lot to give back if you’ve been in situations before, or you’ve been in environments before,” Hinch said. “We had to develop a routine. Most of us as coaches go, ‘Man, if I just would have known back then what I know now, how much better of a player would I have been?’

“Well, you have the opportunity to give that back to the players. … Experience is key, but it’s only valuable if you give it back to someone who hasn’t had it yet.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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