DETROIT — Who would have imagined when the Tigers selected Akil Baddoo in the Rule 5 Draft last December that he would be batting leadoff in Major League games in June? Who would have even imagined it when his hot start cooled amid a spate of strikeouts at the end of April?
“Anything can happen,” Baddoo told reporters earlier this week. “Just be ready when your time comes.”
Though Robbie Grossman returned to the Tigers’ lineup for Thursday’s series opener against the Astros, Baddoo was atop the batting order for a second consecutive game. Part of that decision, manager A.J. Hinch said, involved moving Grossman to the middle of the order with Miguel Cabrera out. Part was to get Baddoo as many at-bats against right-handed pitching as possible, with the way he has not only been hitting, but also seeing the ball.
Baddoo went 1-for-3 from the leadoff spot Wednesday against the Cardinals with an RBI single in a lefty-lefty matchup against hard-throwing Génesis Cabrera. Baddoo also had a strikeout and a walk against St. Louis starter John Gant.
Baddoo entered Thursday batting .353 (24-for-68) with a .982 OPS since May 15, but it’s a different style of hitting than his early-season homer barrage. He has one home run and seven extra-base hits in that span, but he also has as many walks as strikeouts (17), good for a .482 on-base percentage to go with a .460 BABIP.
Baddoo is still in the top 4 percent of hitters for highest strikeout rate, but he has worked his way into the top 9 percent of Major League hitters in walk rate, according to Statcast. His 24.4-percent chase rate entering Thursday was actually below the Major League average. His 69.6-percent contact rate on pitches in the strike zone was also well below the MLB average of 82.1 percent.
“I think he understands pitch recognition is at the forefront of his success,” Hinch said. “So proud of him [Wednesday] with the left-handed at-bat, but it all starts with pitch recognition. If he goes up there in swing mode, or goes up there trying to do damage before pitch recognition, we’ve seen him take a step backwards. And that is that youthful development.
“He has supreme confidence against pitchers. He’s taking close pitches. He’s not afraid to hit the ball the other way. He hasn’t got caught up in the roller-coaster ride with power. He’s made up for that with being very aggressive on the bases. He’s just scratching the surface on how dynamic he can be, and mentally, I think he’s starting to understand what it takes to be successful here, which might be different than anything he has experienced before.”
Considering Baddoo hadn’t played above High-A ball until this year, it’s a big difference. The big realization Baddoo cited was the mental strength and preparation required each day.
The lineup movements have all been done with a plan. Baddoo will move up in the order against righties, then down against some lefties, or out of the lineup against some tougher ones. Hinch is trying to give the 22-year-old new challenges without putting him in positions where he’s more likely to fail.
“Obviously, this is all new for him, and it’s new for us,” Hinch said, “and we’re learning him more and more every day and we’re starting to see improvements. All you ask out of players is to make adjustments along the way and give us the best version of themselves, and he continues to do that. So I will sprinkle in a different challenge here and there and try to make him uncomfortable.
“I think these are all growth opportunities for him, and the more he responds, the more it becomes a reality. I don’t think it fazes him now. We’re into mid-to-late June. He knows he’s a big leaguer right now. So I think the Rule 5 portion of describing him can be put in the past.”