Akil Baddoo finds identity through struggles in sophomore season with Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

Facing the Seattle Mariners on Oct. 3, Akil Baddoo took a 3-1 pitch above the zone. But Baddoo couldn’t head to first base, as home plate umpire Scott Barry called a strike. The missed call didn’t faze the second-year big-leaguer. He stepped out of the batter’s box, adjusted his helmet and jumped back in for the full-count offering from right-hander George Kirby, one of the best rookie pitchers in baseball this season.

High fastballs have been a hole in Baddoo’s game since he first made the majors in April 2021, but when Kirby climbed the strike zone again, Baddoo didn’t take a rip. He unclipped his shin guard, tossed his elbow guard and jogged to first base with a leadoff walk in the first inning at T-Mobile Park. It was Game 159 of the Detroit Tigers‘ season.

Then, Baddoo stole second base.

“My mindset is the race is not over,” Baddoo said after that game in the visitor’s clubhouse. “People have counted me out all my life. People were counting me out last year. It’s something I’m used to. I was raised always to be strong. I can get through anything. So, it’s what you see. It’s baseball. You have your ups and downs, but you just got to finish strong.”

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For Baddoo, the journey to success hasn’t been linear. He shot out of the gate as a rookie but stumbled down the stretch as pitchers learned his tendencies. Selling out contact for power became his approach at the plate. Chasing pitches outside the strike zone resulted in useless plate appearances. The Tigers demoted the 24-year-old to Triple-A Toledo this past May, and even upon his return, he failed to find a groove at the plate despite defensive improvements.

In the final two weeks of 2022, though, Baddoo consistently controlled the strike zone, utilized his speed and found his identity as a player. When February rolls around, there could be several left-handed hitters — chief among them, Baddoo and Kerry Carpenter — vying for the role of fourth outfielder on the 2023 Opening Day roster, assuming the Tigers acquire a right-handed corner outfielder this offseason. To earn his way, Baddoo needs to do what he did down the stretch.

“One of the reasons I’ve put him at the top of the order is the quality of at-bat has been better,” manager A.J. Hinch said before the Oct. 3 game. “Pitch-per-plate appearance has been on the uptick. Barrel contact has been better. His on-base is better. The spark that he provides. His swing path has been better. He’s earned the right to get a few more at-bats (against right-handed pitchers) at the tail end of the year.”

Baddoo, the fastest player on the Tigers, took second base on Kirby’s two-strike fastball to Javier Báez with one out in the first inning that day, giving the Tigers a runner in scoring position. Báez then lined out. But Miguel Cabrera slapped a first-pitch fastball back up the middle to score the speedster for a 1-0 lead, critical to the Tigers’ eventual 4-3 victory.

He finished 2-for-4 with one walk and tried stealing twice more in the game, caught in the third and successful in the ninth.

“Him being a quality at-bat sparkplug is exactly what he should be, and we’ll take the results, power or not, as they come,” Hinch said. “He’s going to be more impactful with his legs and grow into the power. That in itself, that he’s accepted that as his No. 1 goal — to have a good at-bat — I’ve seen that demonstrated a little bit more consistently the last couple weeks. It’s not a coincidence. That’s why I put him at the top of the order. That’s a guy we want to face right-handed pitching quite a bit.”

This season, Baddoo hit .204 with two home runs, a 10.7% walk rate and a 28.4% strikeout rate in 73 games. The biggest issue across the entire season was his swing characteristics, but he had an improved .250 batting average, a 13.0% walk rate and a 23.2% strikeout rate in his final 18 games, along with five of his nine stolen bases.

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A lack of walks didn’t hurt Baddoo, as he ranked second in walk rate to Robbie Grossman (11.9%) — who spent the final two months with the Atlanta Braves — among the 13 Tigers with at least 200 plate appearances this season. Knowing the difference between balls and strikes is valuable and will serve him well as new leadership — president of baseball operations Scott Harris — molds the organization’s hitting philosophy.

But in 2022, Baddoo’s timing wasn’t always calibrated.

“It’s been a roller coaster for me,” Baddoo said. “I learned from getting sent down and getting called back up, and if I’m playing every once in a while, I’m just taking advantage of whatever opportunity comes my way. Not getting too frustrated and trying to stay positive throughout the whole process.

“As far as controlling the strike zone, that’s something I’ve always had. I’ve always had a good eye. It’s just a matter of, when I’m on time I can give myself a better chance to see pitches and lay off some tough stuff that gets me to more hitter’s counts. That’s when I’m more successful.”

At one point, Baddoo seemed on track for an assignment to Triple-A Toledo to begin 2023. Perhaps he’ll still end up with the Mud Hens, but at the very least, he will enter spring training strongly in the mix for a coveted job on the 26-man big-league roster. That seemed unlikely for much of this season. A craving for power and success against lefty pitchers plagued Baddoo’s swing path and contact rate.

Eventually, he learned how to play to his strengths. He hit .184 with three extra-base hits in 55 games (46 starts) leading up to his mid-September boost. Once his focus shifted to having a quality plate appearance, he saw improvements in many areas: walks, hits, on-base percentage, stolen bases and power. He had four extra-base hits after Sept. 16, helping him to a .715 OPS in the final 18-game stretch.

“You go through different things, as far as do you want to do this or do that,” Baddoo said. “Not trying to do too much is better. I already have my strength and athleticism, so I’ll let that play out.”

That’s what the Tigers want Baddoo to do in 2023 and beyond.

A confident Baddoo entered the offseason in a better place mentally. He has an understanding of what makes him successful at the highest level. It won’t be easy, with more ups and downs to navigate in the future, but if he sticks to his fundamentals, he should be just fine.

“I feel like I’m myself again,” Baddoo said. “That’s big to carry into next year. We just want to turn this thing around.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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