A long journey from darkness, back to light for Tigers Akil Baddoo

Detroit News

Baltimore, Md. – It started with a triple against the Astros. A couple nights later against the White Sox he tripled again. He also walked, stole a base and scored twice.

On Monday he delivered a key two-run single against a left-handed pitcher that triggered a five-run inning. He again scored twice, both times racing around from first base on Riley Greene doubles.

Tuesday felt like a breakout. He put the Tigers on top with a two-run home run, his first in 54 games. And it was no cheapie. He sent it 448 feet into the bleachers in right-center. It was the second longest homer of his young career (450 is the longest).

He rapped a double into the right-field corner later in the game.

Here we are just a couple of weeks left in the season and Akil Baddoo has seemingly regained the flash and dash he thrilled Tigers fans with during his rookie season a year ago.

“His at-bats the last 10 days or so have been really good,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I talked to him (Monday night) about what a good place he’s in.”

It’s gone from a trickle to a stream.

“One-hundred percent,” Baddoo said before the game Wednesday. “When you are in every day and you are getting those at-bats, it’s just taking advantage of my opportunity, that’s what you see there – taking advantage of the opportunity and being myself and playing the way I know how to play.”

That version of Baddoo has been missing in action most of the year. He was hitting .140 and looked dispirited when he was optioned back to Triple-A Toledo on May 9. He battled through sickness and an oblique injury for the rest of the month and then, slowly but surely, started to torch Triple-A pitching.

He rejoined the Tigers on July 12 but his at-bats didn’t look any different than they did in April. In his first 36 games back he hit .205 with no extra-base hits and 32 strikeouts in 98 plate appearances. His playing time was cut drastically and he didn’t seem like he was having any fun at all.

“He was not lost,” Hinch said. “It didn’t disappear from him. But the challenge at this level, especially when you want to make a nig impression, is to bring it every day and compartmentalize every play and not compound errors and not impound and at-bats.

More:‘He’s all in’: Tigers hire Giants’ Scott Harris as president of baseball operations

“He’s doing a better job of that.”

Who knows what ultimately flips a switch for a player? Was there a rock-bottom moment? A come-to-Jesus moment?  Was it the culmination of all the work he put in?

Maybe it was something as innocuous as drawing back-to-back walks and scoring twice in an 8-4 win in Kansas City.

Maybe it was just time.

“We always have that self-reflection about the player you want to be and what you think you can do,” Baddoo said. “That’s all I was doing, just self-reflecting. Knowing the type of player I am. I know how good I am and knowing that eventually that was going to come to light. That’s basically what you are seeing. Just me having fun and letting my abilities show on the field.”

In his last eight games he posted a 1.0 OPS. He’s starting to drive balls again – a double, two triples, the homer. And most importantly, at least from the Tigers’ view, he was back applying pressure on opposing defenses with his legs. He drew five walks in those eight games and scored eight runs.

“He’s been in more control of his at-bats,” Hinch said. “That home run, it was like a surprise homer. He’s not trying to over-generate. He’s not swinging too hard and he’s not swinging too big. He’s been controlling the strike zone a little better and he’s getting rewarded for it by making good contact.”  

That right there, the big swings, the quest for more power, might be at the heart of everything Baddoo went through this season. He came into spring training with a steeper launch angle on his swing. And when he got off to a horrendous start in the spring games, he hastily tried to adjust and go back to his more natural swing.

The result was quicksand. And it took him five months to dig himself out.

“He tried to make some adjustments before the league adjusted to him at the beginning,” Hinch said. “And that changed a little bit of his angles. He was fixated on handling left-handed pitching, too, so he could stay in the lineup. He was trying to accomplish a lot of things at the beginning to make the impression that last year was not the only joy ride he’s going to be on.”

And the more he struggled, the more his playing time was cut, the more sullen Baddoo became.

“When things started to go south and even when he was optioned, that impacted him a little bit,” Hinch said.

Hinch had a decision to make with Baddoo as his struggles persisted into August. He could send him back to Toledo a second time or keep him on the roster, even though he wouldn’t be getting regular reps.

“One of the reasons we kept him up here, we need this young guy to get right and get himself in a good place,” Hinch said. “We needed him to get into a position where he could come back and compete for a job next year.”

As Baddoo looked back on those darker times Wednesday, he views them not as a failure but as part of the journey.

“It’s all part of the things you go through in your career,” he said. “And I did it early and learned from it. It’s just about learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.”

As Hinch was quick to point out, Baddoo is not done struggling in this game. Nobody ever is done struggling. But at least now he has a guidebook for dealing with it and finding his way back to right.

“There’s not one secret button to push,” Hinch said. “But there are a number of things that happen. The consistent playing time helps him, too. But to sum it all up, you can find a lot of reasons things have come together for him.”

Hinch said Baddoo’s body is in a better position in the batter’s box, his batting stance is in a healthier position and with that, he’s putting himself in a better position to handle different pitches.

“Some things around him have settled to where he’s more patient at the plate,” Hinch said. “His at-bats are longer and his reaction to fouling balls off is not as bad.”

In other words, Baddoo isn’t letting himself be defeated when he fouls off or misses his pitch early in an at-bat. He’s fighting to the last strike. No concession.

“Akil is an exciting player who we really like when he’s contributing,” Hinch said. “We haven’t even scratched the surface on what he can do and how much better he can get.”

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FRONT OFFICE UPDATE

Tigers new president of baseball operations Scott Harris is going to take the remainder of the 2022 season to transition into the job. He won’t formally take over the day-to-day big-league operations until Oct. 6.

This will give Harris three weeks to make his rounds, his introductions and evaluate staff, players and systems.

In the meantime, assistant general manager Sam Menzin will continue to handle the day-to-day operations of the club until the end of the season.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.comTwitter: @cmccosky

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