Slowly but surely, rookie Akil Baddoo morphing into an everyday ‘dude’ for Tigers

Detroit News

Kansas City, Mo. — Wait. The Tigers faced a hard-throwing young left-handed pitcher Sunday, Daniel Lynch, and left-handed hitting Akil Baddoo was hitting leadoff? And right-handed hitting Derek Hill was batting ninth?

There must’ve been some eyes rolling in the Tigers’ analytics office when that lineup came out. But what the straight analytics don’t factor in is the overriding objective this season — especially with a player like Baddoo.

Development is just as important, if not more so in the big picture, than salvaging one game out of a three-game series in Kansas City in July. Manager AJ Hinch and his staff aren’t just developing Baddoo to be a solid big-league player who plays only against right-handed pitching.

They are pushing him to be an everyday impact player — a dude, as Hinch likes to say.

“I want him to be challenged and get some opportunities against some of these lefties,” Hinch said before the game. “But we’re going to need better at-bats from him against lefties.”

Baddoo is 9 for 52 against left-handed pitching this season and 19 strikeouts, so from that standpoint it’s still a work in progress. But he did get two singles off Twins lefty J.A. Happ earlier in the week.

“He’ll fight with you, he’ll battle and go after it,” Hinch said. “And the more he does that, the more comfortable he’s going to get. Happ wasn’t a great match-up for him but he was able to fight off a couple hits and create some havoc on the bases.”

Baddoo, who will turn 23 next month, has belied his age and experience all season. Not just with his overall production, but with the way he picked himself up off the mat after enduring a 5 for 55 skid in May.

He’s been at his best with runners in scoring position, hitting .391 (18 for 46) with 30 RBIs. With two outs and runners in scoring position, he’s hitting .435 (10 for 23) with 17 RBIs. With men on base, he’s hitting .346 (28 for 81). He’s 6 for 8 with 15 RBIs with the bases loaded.

His ability to slow the game down and stay within himself in those situations has been remarkable. He hasn’t had the same approach, though, when he bats with nobody on. He tends to swing too big and try too hard to do damage in those situations.

Which is why his two-run homer in the ninth off Greg Holland on Saturday night was viewed as a good sign by the coaching staff.

“His at-bats are good,” Hinch said. “He knows the strike zone. As long as we keep him in a good mental state of just trying to be a productive hitter and not necessarily selling out for anything — either damage or patience — he can be a pretty well-rounded hitter.

“Last night was a good example. He wasn’t trying to do too much, just trying to keep the line moving and he ended up hitting the ball out of the ballpark. He has a ton of potential and a ton of present that we are impressed by.”

Not to be overlooked, too, is the improvement he’s made defensively, especially as he’s settled more into a corner outfield role with Hill manning center. Baddoo is a minus-2 in defensive runs saved in center. He’s a plus-1 in right field and a minus-1 in left.

“The steps forward he’s taken in the outfield have been very noticeable to the coaching staff, and the work he’s done with (outfield coach) George Lombard,” Hinch said. “He’s turning himself into a really good outfielder.”

Is Baddoo an every day player right now, 78 games into his big-league career? Just about.

“We’ll see,” Hinch said. “I’m going to be cognizant of his health and tiredness … I will give him days off here and there and the majority of them against left-handers just because it’s convenient. But I’d also like to give him more opportunities as we get deeper into the season.”

Rock and a hard place

So you want to be a manager, huh? Hinch was caught with a choice of the lesser of two evils in the seventh inning Saturday night.

Right-hander Kyle Funkhouser, who hadn’t given up a run in 17 innings, was tagged for a three-run homer by Carlos Santana that put the Royals up 7-6. He was at 29 pitches and had two runners on and two outs with left-handed hitting Ryan O’Hearn due up.

Here were Hinch’s options:

► Leave Funkhouser in to face O’Hearn, a power hitter who had homered on Friday.

► Bring in a lefty, knowing the Royals would counter with right-handed hitting pinch-hitter Hanser Alberto. And because Daniel Norris already had been used, the lefty warming in the bullpen was Ian Krol.

“You have a tiring pitcher who’d been giving up hits in Funk, against O’Hearn who has hurt us a couple of times already,” Hinch said. “Do we want Funk facing a lefty at the end of his tank having thrown two innings worth of pitches in one inning?

“I figured the pinch-hitter was coming but we really liked the cutter from Krol in on Alberto.”

Alberto swung and missed at the first cutter from Krol. The next one stayed out over the plate and Alberto drove it over Hill’s head in center or a two-run triple — ultimately the killing blow in a 9-8 loss.

“I don’t agonize over it; the results are what they are,” Hinch said. “I don’t know what would have happened with O’Hearn. If I’d left Funk in and O’Hearn got a base hit, anyone would question why you left him in. The results dictate the reaction.

“I just have to go on my best process and let the results be what the players do.”

Around the horn

Reliever Michael Fulmer was scheduled to start and pitch one inning for the Toledo Mud Hens in Indianapolis on Sunday and then fly to Minnesota to meet the Tigers on Monday. With the Mud Hens off, Fulmer, out with a neck strain, will get a chance to be evaluated by the Tigers’ training staff before deciding whether to activate him off the injured list.

On deck: Twins

Series: Three games at Target Field, Minneapolis

First pitch: Monday-Tuesday — 8:10 p.m.; Wednesday — 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: Monday-Tuesday — BSD/97.1 FM; Wednesday — BSD, MLBN/97.1 FM.

Probables: Monday — RHP Matt Manning (2-3, 5.79) vs. RHP Michael Pineda (4-5, 3.93); Tuesday — LHP Tyler Alexander (1-1, 4.24) vs. RHP Kenta Maeda (4-4, 4.63); Wednesday — RHP Wily Peralta (3-2, 2.56) vs. LHP J.A. Happ (5-5, 6.14).

Manning, Tigers: He will be looking to build on his most successful outing to date, holding the Rangers to one earned run and four hits in six innings. His four-seam (92.8 mph on average) generated seven whiffs, nine called strikes and mostly soft contact (78.7 mph exit velocity on eight balls in play). His change-up and slider were very effective off the heater.

Pineda, Twins: He’s made two starts since June 13, both against the White Sox (six runs in 10.1 innings). His fastball velocity is sitting at 90 mph, but when he’s dotting the edges and getting to his slider in pitcher-advantage counts, he can be stingy. Opponents are hitting .202 off his slider with a 40% whiff rate.

Twitter: @cmccosky

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