The Baltimore Orioles don’t have much to celebrate this season, virtually already out of the American League East race.
Leadoff hitter and center fielder Cedric Mullins is an exception. Along with electric outfield defense and speed on the bases, the 26-year-old Mullins is hitting .318 with nine home runs and 19 RBIs. He leads the American League with 76 hits in 62 games.
“Gosh, man, it’s ridiculous,” Detroit Tigers rookie outfielder Akil Baddoo said. “I’m loving it. I’m enjoying it because he’s been through a lot. He wants to stick, and he’s proving to everyone that he deserves to be up here.”
Why does Mullins matter?
“We’re really close,” Baddoo, 22, said. “I’ve known him since I was 14. He was the guy that everyone looked up to. He was the first one who got drafted out of our area (in Georgia). Everyone looked up to him because he played baseball and went about life in the right way.”
Right now, Baddoo is trying to solidify his case to become a part of his organization’s future. He wants to be an everyday outfielder, maybe even the center fielder. He wants to bat at the top of the lineup, maybe even the leadoff hitter.
“I love being in big situations,” Baddoo said.
“He’s already been at the top, where he’s performed like the best in baseball,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said. “He’s hit rock bottom. Now all of a sudden, he’s back again. You rarely see that in such a young player with such little experience. You see that mostly with more veteran players with how to come back.
“That in itself, to me, is a very positive sign that this guy could be here to stay, and for a long time.”
While Mullins is an established player in the majors; Baddoo is not. Mullins’ development included back and forth trips between Triple-A Norfolk and Baltimore in 2018 and 2019.
Asked to improve, Mullins bounced back.
“I had success early in my career, back when I first debuted (in 2018),” Mullins said earlier this season. “Might have had a little bit of complacency mixed in there, and it led to struggle. Not just a little bit, it kind of snowballed. But I knew what kind of player I was, and I just needed to work my way back to being confident.”
Baddoo will surely face more of these challenges. Because of his status as a Rule 5 draft pick, the Tigers will keep him on the active roster for the remainder of this season. He has already made some significant adjustments in the big leagues, such as increasing walks and cutting down on strikeouts.
Still, Baddoo leans on Mullins.
There’s much more he needs to learn.
“I just ask him like, ‘Hey, what are you thinking sometimes?'” Baddoo said. “We do a little small talk, sometimes we talk about life and how we’re doing mentally. That’s really important because baseball is a mental game. Just making sure you’re staying mentally strong is really important.”
And you can’t help but think about how Baddoo’s raw talent, which resembles Mullins’ skill set, could impact the future — speed, plate discipline, power to all parts of the field, a center fielder’s range and just the right amount of swagger.
Baddoo is the Tigers’ fastest player. He averages 29 feet per second on the bases and takes 4.12 seconds to get from home plate to first base. Mullins averages 28.5 feet per second on the bases and takes 4.18 seconds to get from home plate to first.
Mullins, a 13th-round pick in 2015, wasn’t supposed to evolve into a stud for the Orioles, just like Baddoo wasn’t supposed to make an impact for the Tigers in 2021.
Instead, Baddoo crushed the first pitch he saw for a home run in his first at-bat. He belted a grand slam in his second game. He delivered a walk-off single in his third game. Then, he tripled and threw out a runner trying for a double in his fourth game.
In his seventh game, Baddoo smacked a 450-foot home run to straightaway center field. He homered again in his eighth game and doubled in his ninth game.
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From April 15 through May 8, Baddoo went through a 5-for-50 stretch over 17 games. All five hits went for extra-bases, and he walked three times compared to 27 strikeouts.
He was forced to adjust.
Since the end of April, Baddoo has upped his plate discipline with 16 walks — and 22 strikeouts — for a .421 on-base percentage in his past 28 games. (In April, Baddoo had two walks, 29 strikeouts and a .242 OBP in 20 games.) He is 7-for-7 on stolen bases and has a season-long .246 batting average in 48 games.
Baddoo hit leadoff for the first time in his MLB career June 6 against the Chicago White Sox. He has played 22 games (19 starts) in center field. Entering this year, Baddoo hadn’t taken the field above the High-A level in the minor leagues.
Like Avila, Tigers manager AJ Hinch thinks highly of Baddoo’s potential.
“If he controls the strike zone the way he does when he’s been good, he can profile hitting anywhere in the order because he’s got power, he’s got speed,” Hinch said. “If he can control the strike zone, that will get him closer to the top of the lineup. But there’s a lot of development left for him, and we’ll see where that goes.”
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While Robbie Grossman is the Tigers’ leadoff hitter for the foreseeable future, don’t be surprised if Baddoo consistently hits near the top of the batting order and roams center field at some point in his career.
That’s the type of player Baddoo desires to become.
He wants to emulate Mullins, his close friend and mentor who is becoming a star in Baltimore.
“The potential, I think, is even more than what you’re seeing right now,” Avila said. “I don’t know if he’s going to be able to be the guy that he was in that first month, but I know he’s not the guy that hit rock bottom. I know that he’s got more potential than we’re seeing right now, and it’s very exciting to see this develop right in front of our eyes at the major league level.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.