Tigers’ Akil Baddoo continues to defy presumed limitations of inexperience

Detroit News

Detroit — Akil Baddoo was asked what he’d have said back in March if you told him he would be hitting .270 with an .857 OPS by the middle of June.

“Anything can happen,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s what I’d say. Anything can happen, just be ready when your time comes.”

Who knew that after not playing for nearly two years and never seeing a pitch above High-A, Baddoo would be this ready? His steady progress and production almost belie belief. You almost feel the need to temper your enthusiasm for fear what you’re seeing isn’t real.

“I don’t think it fazes him,” manager AJ Hinch said before the game Wednesday. “We’re into mid-to-late June and heading toward the All-Star break. He knows he’s a big-leaguer now. I think the Rule 5 part of describing him can be put in the past.”

Baddoo, who ignited the Tigers’ 8-2 win Tuesday with two hits and two runs scored, took a nine-game hitting streak into play Wednesday. Over that stretch he’s slashed .406/.486/.531. But go back even further to May 15.

In 26 games, he’s slashing .354/.481/.508 in 81 plate appearances with a .989 OPS, 16 walks, 16 strikeouts, six stolen bases and 12 runs scored. It’s mind-boggling production from a player who bypassed two rungs of the minor leagues.

“I feel like I’m right where I belong,” Baddoo said. “I just continue to have fun, continue to play my game and don’t lose sight of that.”

It’s not just the numbers, it’s the maturity of his at-bats that contradict his lack of experience. He works counts. He’s not defeated if the pitcher gets two strikes on him. He pulls inside pitches and drives outside pitches to the opposite field.

He led off the fifth inning Tuesday slicing a double to left field. Cardinals pitcher Daniel Ponce Deleon got ahead 1-2, throwing him back-to-back change-ups. He tried to beat him with a cutter in on the hands, but Baddoo kept his hands in and put a strong inside-out swing on the ball.

He’s 30-for-96 when he’s even or ahead in the count. He’s 10-for-52 when he falls behind in the count. In 48 plate appearances where he worked three balls, he’s got a .542 on-base average with 23 walks. In high leverage at-bats, he’s hitting .379, with a .550 on-base percentage, .655 slugging percentage and a 1.205 OPS.

“This is all new for him and it’s new for us,” Hinch said. “We’re learning more and more every day and we’re starting to see improvement. All you ask out of players is to make adjustments along the way and give us the best version of themselves. Akil continues to do that.”

Hinch and the coaching staff are creating in real time a seminar on how to emotionally nurture and physically develop raw talent at the highest level of the game. Hinch has masterfully given Baddoo room to grow and put him in positions to succeed as much as possible. Just as significantly, he’s been quick to pull back when failure loomed.

“All of our coaches have done a really good job with him and all our young players of just continuing to stay positive,” Hinch said. “And continuing to throw things at them as each player is ready. Akil has responded favorably. He’s looking more and more comfortable as the season has gone along, so we’re giving him a longer leash.

“We’ve moved him around in the order and he’s continued to respond. It’s been fun to see. He’s an incredibly talented player and our job is to provide the environment for him and put some challenges in front of him that will allow him to flourish.”

Hinch had Baddoo hitting leadoff against the Cardinals Wednesday. Robbie Grossman, the regular leadoff hitter, was battling the flu and a 1-for-21 skid and got the day off. In what can be a languid energy day — a day game after a long night game — Hinch was hoping Baddoo would provide a spark.

“I will sprinkle different challenges here and there,” Hinch said. “Just trying to make him uncomfortable. These are growth opportunities for him. And the more he responds, the more it becomes a reality. But I don’t really want him to drag any more into the day than just give me the best version of yourself today.”

Back in April, Baddoo watched veteran Jonathan Schoop battle through one of the worst slumps of his career. Every day he’d see Schoop with hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, just grinding and trying to get himself untracked.

“He’d be in the cage working four different drills with four different swings trying to figure out what works,” Baddoo said. “I’m just looking at it like, ‘Oh, OK, all right.’ You see him now, one of the hottest hitters in the league. It’s all working. That was definitely fun to see all the work you put in finally pay off.”

Object lesson. Learned.

“It’s just knowing you have ups and downs when it comes to baseball,” Baddoo said. “You can eventually come out on top. Just stay hungry, stay ready and continue to play your baseball.”

Play on, Akil, play on.

Around the horn

Miguel Cabrera didn’t start Wednesday after straining his right calf in an awkward slide Tuesday night. Hinch, though, said Cabrera would likely be available to pinch hit.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

On deck: Astros

Series: Four games at Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 4:10 p.m. Saturday, 1:10 p.m. Sunday

TV/radio: All games on BSD/97.1

Probables: Thursday — RHP Luis Garcia (5-4, 2.82) vs. RHP Jose Urena (2-7, 5.79); Friday — LHP Framber Valdez (4-0, 1.67) vs. RHP Wily Peralta (0-1, 7.11); Saturday — RHP Lance McCullers Jr. (4-1, 2.90) vs. RHP Casey Mize (4-4, 3.61); Sunday — RHP Jake Odorizzi (2-3, 4.75) vs. LHP Tarik Skubal (4-7, 4.33).

SCOUTING REPORT

Garcia, Astros: He blanked the Tigers over 4⅓ innings in a relief appearance in April but he’s carved a niche in the Astros rotation, posting a 2.77 ERA with opponents hitting .206 with 66 strikeouts in 55⅓ innings in his last 10 starts. He’s getting a 46.8 whiff rate with his cutter, 44 with his slider.

Urena, Tigers: He’s not been the same since missing a start with a forearm strain. His sinker velocity has been down a tick and he hasn’t had the same sharpness or command with his slider. As a result, he’s been tagged for 14 earned runs in his last two starts (six innings) with opponents hitting .400.

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