DETROIT – Akil Baddoo was one of the most exciting players on the planet for the first two weeks of the season. He hit dramatic homers and even gave the Detroit Tigers a walk-off win. But what he’s doing right now is even more impressive.
It’s been a tale of three seasons so far for the Tigers’ rookie. Let’s take a look at his journey.
Magical start to season
Everyone remembers how Baddoo burst onto the MLB scene. The first pitch he ever saw in the big leagues was parked over the left field fence for a home run. In his second game, he hit a grand slam. The very next day, he delivered a win with a pinch-hit, walk-off RBI single.
He hit a triple and threw out a base runner from left field in the following game to make it four straight days atop the highlight reel. The Tigers weren’t overly interesting, but Baddoo sure was.
Through his first nine games, Baddoo was hitting .370 with a 1.342 OPS (on-base plus slugging) and four home runs.
He only had one walk compared eight strikeouts in 29 plate appearances, though. Remember that for later.
Most of you probably know the story of Baddoo, but it’s worth repeating: When he joined the Tigers for spring training this winter, the odds were stacked against him in terms of making the roster.
Baddoo hadn’t appeared in a professional game since May 11, 2019 -- nearly a full two years. He suffered a season-ending elbow injury while playing in High-A ball. Then, the 2020 minor league season was canceled due to COVID-19.
So this 22-year-old shows up to Tigers’ spring training after two years away from actual competition and never having played a game above Single-A. His minor-league OPS of .780 wasn’t even anything special.
But he hit five home runs and drew 10 walks in spring training, so the Tigers were forced to add him to the Opening Day roster.
Considering his unremarkable track record coming into 2021, it wasn’t a surprise to see Baddoo battle through a slump after his torrid start.
This slump, though... It was rough. Over the next 17 games after his first nine, Baddoo went 5-for-50 with just three walks and 27 strikeouts.
That’s right: The rookie struck out in 27 of 53 plate appearances while posting a .371 OPS. It was difficult to watch.
During that stretch, Baddoo went hitless in 13 of 17 games. He thrice struck out three times in a game, and had 10 multi-strikeout performances.
His batting average dropped from .370 to .195. His OPS plummeted from 1.342 to .725. The raw numbers were concerning enough, but the aesthetics were even worse because Baddoo simply looked overmatched.
Then, one day in Kansas City, Baddoo got on base five times. He hasn’t looked back since.
Three walks and two singles tonight for Akil Baddoo. Very encouraging game.— Derick Hutchinson (@Derick_Hutch) May 12, 2021
In 29 games from May 11 through June 22, Baddoo is hitting .352 with a .484 on-base percentage and .976 OPS. He’s only tallied seven extra-base hits in that span, but the hard contact has been consistent.
Most importantly, the plate discipline is extraordinary.
During his resurgence, Baddoo has drawn 19 walks while striking out 18 times. In the grand scheme of a baseball season, that’s a small sample, but this is the type of improvement that doesn’t necessarily go through volatile hot and cold streaks.
During his brief time in the minor leagues, Baddoo showed a strong understanding of the strike zone and the ability to get on base via the walk. He did the same during spring training, with 10 walks compared to 14 strikeouts.
That’s why his insane strikeout rate earlier in the season was so confounding -- it hadn’t really been a weakness for him.
But we have to remember Baddoo is a player making the jump straight from Single-A to MLB -- with a two-year gap in between. It’s not surprising that he needed some time to get his footing.
He was hitting for incredible power the first two weeks of the season, but what he’s done over the past month and a half is much more sustainable. The most difficult skill for a young player to master is plate discipline, and Baddoo already appears to have a head start.
Consistency has been key for Baddoo over the last 29 games. The Tigers would rather see him do something positive every night than go 4-for-4 one game and then hitless the rest of the week.
Right now, Baddoo is on an eight-game hitting streak -- 11 hits, three doubles, five walks and three strikeouts in 33 plate appearances. He’s slashing .393/.485/.500 during that span, and has earned a start in the leadoff spot Wednesday against the St. Louis Cardinals.
For many young players, the early-season slump might have crated their confidence and tanked the entire season. But Baddoo has steadily improved his numbers to a more than respectable level: .270/.364/.493.
He leads the Tigers in OPS by 45 points. He leads all offensive players with 1.4 WAR (wins above replacement). He’s stolen eight bases in nine attempts and played all three outfield positions serviceably.
I still have two glaring questions for Baddoo.
First, can he avoid another long slump? There will be ups and downs at the plate, but can he maintain his mastery of the strike zone and be a productive offensive player even when he’s not hitting well?
Second, and most importantly, will he be an everyday player or the left-handed half of a platoon?
Baddoo only has 30 plate appearances against lefties this season, so it’s not enough data to draw hard conclusions. But so far, he’s just 2-for-25 with two singles, four walks, 12 strikeouts and a .280 OPS in those plate appearances.
Will the Tigers have to pair him with someone like Daz Cameron or Derek Hill going forward? He’s been such a game-changer that it would be disappointing to have to take him out of the lineup so often.
A.J. Hinch faces a difficult decision. He can give Baddoo more at-bats against lefties and risk breaking his rhythm at the plate. But if he doesn’t, Baddoo won’t have a chance to grow against lefties, and it might push him even more toward being a platoon player.
There’s nothing wrong with being a strong half of a platoon, but Baddoo’s skills are so enticing that it leaves you wondering if he could be even more. As the season progresses, that will be one of the storylines to watch for these young Tigers.