How ‘Mamba Mentality’ helped Detroit Tigers’ Akil Baddoo become ‘bona fide big leaguer’

Detroit Free Press

Akil Baddoo wasn’t supposed to do what he did.

He made the Detroit Tigers‘ Opening Day roster out of spring training, signifying the beginning of his first season in the big leagues. Baddoo then played 124 games, hitting .259 with 13 home runs and 18 stolen bases.

Big moments boosted his confidence early, such as when he delivered a walk-off single April 6 to top the Minnesota Twins in extra innings. The consistency of his at-bats elevated him to the leadoff spot.

As for his defense, he worked 66 games in center field, a testament to his athleticism, but needs to improve his throwing arm. He spent months in the American League Rookie of the Year race and is now being discussed as a potential future starting outfielder for an organization hungry to win.

“It’s a unique story,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “There are other stories that have happened in the past like this, so it’s not the first time ever, but it does continue to defy the odds, that’s for sure. The talent is real. The human is incredible. We’ve got a good player on our hands.”

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All of this happened throughout Baddoo’s age-22 season, despite never having played above High-A. The Tigers picked Baddoo, now 23, in the Rule 5 draft in December 2020, after the Twins left him off their 40-man roster. (The Twins had selected him No. 74 overall in 2016, but were loaded with outfield prospects.)

For the pick, the Tigers paid the Twins $100,000. They were required to keep Baddoo on the 26-man roster for the entire regular season, or offer him back to the Twins for $50,000. Of the 18 players selected in the 2020 Rule 5 draft, 10 were either traded, claimed off waivers or returned to their former team.

Baddoo was one of eight to last with the team that picked him.

And he thrived in Detroit.

“This is something I want to be a part of,” Baddoo said Oct. 1 in Chicago. “Not only to be the leader, but I want to set the tone. Everyone has bought in. We all want to change this to a winning culture. We will soon. It’ll be fun to see.”

As for the Tigers’ 77-85 season, Baddoo took one of the lead roles from the start of spring training. There was something special about him from the beginning, first evident from the way he fearlessly stood in the batter’s box. He appeared comfortable — Hinch often describes this type of demeanor as having “a calm heartbeat” — and seemed so sure of himself.

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Baddoo talked plenty about studying Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds. He watched highlights and tried to retain everything they did while he recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2019. Baddoo’s favorite athlete is the late Kobe Bryant, and he worships the Kobe-created “Mamba Mentality.” It’s basically a mindset of constant self-improvement though hard work to become the best version of oneself, with a focus on passion, obsession, relentlessness, resiliency and fearlessness.

“Yeah, that’s what I live by,” said Baddoo, who wore custom purple and yellow spikes Sept. 30 in Minnesota to honor Bryant’s legacy. The words “Mamba Mentality” were painted on the outside of his left cleat. “That mentality of just never giving up.”

Hinch noticed this mindset right away.

“His personality is who he is,” Hinch said. “He carries himself with poise, confidence and maturity. He came into my office in spring training and introduced himself. From that day forward, he’s been himself completely this entire season. … He hasn’t changed a bit. The experience is what’s changed, but the person and the personality and the outgoing nature has been there since Day 1.”

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His unwavering persona helped, but the 2021 season wasn’t a walk in the park.

After his red-hot start in April, he suffered the first slump of his MLB career. He went 1-for-29 with three walks and 16 strikeouts across 10 games between April 23 and May 6. As a result, his batting average dropped from .295 to .192. Pitchers recognized Baddoo’s ability to demolish fastballs.

The rookie had to make adjustments.

“It was more so mixing in the pitches and not giving me as many fastballs as I used to get,” the left-handed Baddoo said. “I made that adjustment by staying more middle and opposite field. That allowed me to stay on offspeed and fastballs. It made me stay on each and every pitch they threw in the (strike) zone.”

He struggled against left-handed pitchers, hitting 21-for-98 (.214) with nine walks and 33 strikeouts. He finished 86-for-315 (.273) with 36 walks and 89 strikeouts when facing right-handed pitchers, also providing 19 of his 20 doubles, six of his seven triples, all 13 home runs and 44 of his 55 RBIs.

Beginning July 1, Baddoo went 17-for-75 (.243) against lefties.

“When it comes to lefties, just opening my eyes a little bit more toward the pitcher so I can allow my eyes to see the pitch and read the strike zone longer,” Baddoo said. “You make adjustments throughout the whole year.”

From May 15-July 29, Baddoo hit .302 with 24 walks and 40 strikeouts across 54 games, with a .384 on-base percentage. Over his next 15 games, from July 30-Aug. 30, though, Baddoo hit just .196 without a walk and struck out 18 times.

In the middle of that stretch, he landed on the injured list Aug. 11 for concussion protocol after a frightening collision in the outfield with speedy center fielder Derek Hill.

Once again, Baddoo bounced back. He played his final 26 games from Sept. 1-Oct. 3, hitting .263 with 14 walks and 27 strikeouts.

“In the big leagues, they’re going to throw you strikes,” Baddoo said. “You have to be really disciplined. There’s times where I’ve been really good at recognizing pitches and allowing myself to draw walks. There’s times where there’s pitches that were balls that I was swinging at. Maybe it’s a timing thing. But it’s baseball. You live and learn.”

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Making these adjustments in Year 1 sends Baddoo into the offseason with work to do. He hopes to someday become the eighth player in franchise history to record at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases. (Fellow outfielder Robbie Grossman was the most recent player to do so, hitting 23 home runs and stealing 20 bases in 2021.) Above all, Baddoo is hungry for a chance to reach the playoffs. He wants to be in the spotlight with his teammates.

Looking ahead, Baddoo could become the first Rule 5 pick to make the All-Star Game since Odubel Herrera, acquired by the Philadelphia Phillies from the Texas Rangers in the 2014 draft and an All-Star in 2016.

Although Baddoo still needs to establish himself as an everyday outfielder, he is well on his way in following Herrera’s path. He earned a spot on MLB Pipeline’s 2021 All-Rookie Second Team (as did Tigers catcher Eric Haase, right-hander Casey Mize and lefty Tarik Skubal).

“I’m very proud,” Baddoo said. “I realize this is just the beginning, so I’m building off this and getting ready for next year. There’s a lot of hope. We’re really looking forward to the future that we have.”

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Meanwhile, the Tigers are looking forward to their future with Baddoo roaming the Comerica Park outfield.

“Just when he seems like he’s fading a little bit, there’s a burst of energy and a burst of hits that remind us that he’s a really good player in a really good place,” Hinch said. “I think he’s handled it as well as anybody could have possibly imagined coming out of A-ball.

“It’s a long season, and we are far away from the debate on a Rule 5 pick. This is a bona fide big leaguer proving that he’s going to be a big part of what we’re doing.”

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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