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Akil Baddoo’s success may only be a starting point

The Tigers’ rookie sensation has a lot of work ahead to reach his ceiling, but his breakout campaign argues we haven’t seen his peak yet.

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Detroit Tigers v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Throughout his six-year tenure as general manager of the Detroit Tigers’ organization, Al Avila hasn’t exactly turned up bountiful riches in terms of player acquisition at the major league level. His finds, including Niko Goodrum, Victor Reyes, and Eric Haase, have more often amounted to useful but unspectacular and often temporary fixes. While Jose Cisnero emerged as a very good veteran relief option, many others, from Mikie Mahtook and Ronny Rodriguez, to John Hicks and Brandon Dixon, simply couldn’t improve on the issues that left them available to the Tigers in the first place.

When he selected Akil Baddoo in the 2021 Rule 5 draft, Avila was likely hoping that the outfielder could eventually become another supporting cast member snagged on the cheap. He couldn’t have predicted that the young outfielder would immediately become one of his most beloved additions to the team. Like a splash of water in a parched desert, Baddoo’s emergence sparked life and energy in a fanbase that has been beaten down by hundreds of losses over the past few seasons, and was one of the key signs that the 2021 Tigers were on another level entirely.

Some were questioning whether he would even survive the roster cuts after Spring Training, but Baddoo endeared himself to this team and its fans quickly. His early season play was a big factor in that (it’s hard to hate a guy who hits a homer in his first at-bat and a grand slam in the very next game) but he is also an easy guy to enjoy for his personality and style of play. Baddoo plays with a combination of fire and discipline that is prized at any level of the sport and proved level-headed and mature well beyond his experience level.

The person inside the ball player is wonderfully revealed in a pair of profiles Cody Stavenhagen wrote for The Athletic, bookending the rookie sensation’s season. The first, written in April, detail his excitement and motivation toward his opportunity in Detroit, the journey to recovery from 2019 Tommy John surgery, and his motivations stretching far beyond the professional. The second, written in October, tell the story of his “constant quest” to the the best version of himself.

“I feel like I was just there in a sense, as far as the preparation and everything, coming into spring training,” Baddoo said to Stavenhagen. “I was getting prepared in November, December. But now that’s gonna be a couple months from now.”

MLB: JUL 19 Rangers at Tigers Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Because his season was a whirlwind for both fans and the man himself, it’s easy to simply gawk at how well he performed in the major leagues, outstripping any expectations in his age-22 season. However, at this point, the fanfare of Baddoo’s clutch heroics and electrifying presence during his rookie season are in the rearview mirror. With the emotions removed, it’s completely valid to question whether the success he found is sustainable as he enters his first offseason as an established player.

The answer, just like any attempt at projection past the end of your nose in this sport, is a bit murky. Get ready for a lot of numbers.

With an entire season of data available to the league at this point, every manager in baseball who wants to know Baddoo’s soft spots can have that information without a problem. A fastball hitter, he was embattled against softer stuff, especially changeups. The cambio tied him up in knots this year, as he only got 15 hits through 74 at-bats that ended with the pitch. Despite having a good eye for the strike zone and being difficult to tempt on the edges, he was induced to swing outside the zone 32.2 percent of the time on changeups. That figure is a full five percent higher than his overall number.

He also struggled with sliders, which he saw at a similar rate as changeups. The at-bats that ended in a slider during Baddoo’s 2021 campaign were a strikeout over 30 percent of the time. However, he was also able to hold back on pulling the trigger on bad sliders more often than other offspeed offerings and his walk rate on at-bats that ended in a slider outpaced his season total.

His biggest problems, though, were against lefties as a whole. The splits speak for themselves and tell a dramatic story about which kind of pitcher Baddoo is more comfortable facing.

Akil Baddoo vs. Handedness Splits

vs. Righties 0.273 0.346 0.495 127 25.20% 10.20%
vs. Lefties 0.214 0.278 0.245 47 30.60% 8.30%

This August 10th appearance against the Baltimore Orioles is an excellent example of the anticipation that Baddoo clearly needs to improve next season. He was matched up against Paul Fry, a left handed pitcher who throws fastballs and sliders almost exclusively. Fry’s ability to spot the ball is wanting but he is able to strikeout boatloads of hitters because his stuff moves so much.

Down in the count 1-2, Baddoo should have expected that Fry would go for the jugular. Understanding that he uses a slider as his kill pitch and his control is poor, Baddoo should have been ready to take the pitch and force Fry to play into Baddoo’s fastball hitting tendencies. Instead, he served up this unsightly swing:

Nevertheless, Baddoo’s spot in the starting lineup was well-earned and he was one of the Tigers’ best hitters on the whole all season long. He thrived on a diet of fastballs that he thrashed for a 145 wRC+, which is far and away better than league average production.

On another positive note, there shouldn’t be too much hand-wringing over Baddoo’s inflated batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a figure that sat at .335 at season’s end. Usually, writers will quickly point to that high of a figure — league average play almost always evens out around the .300 mark — as a sign of good luck and predict a reversal in the upcoming season, with a corresponding collapse in production. As a point of reference, when scaled back to reflect a normal BABIP, his season-ending numbers would have been .231/.298/.414. That isn’t terrible, but it certainly isn’t good either.

However, Baddoo is well-equipped to be one of the rare players who can consistently elude the maleficent grasp of regression to the mean. There are basically two ways to make that happen: run extremely fast or lash a copious amount of line drives. Out of 521 players with at least 5 opportunities to run to first base, Baddoo was the 15th fastest in the game, while also hitting a roughly average number of line drives, uncommon for a player that fast. That meshes nicely with manager AJ Hinch’s policy to be aggressive on the basepaths on well-struck balls.

In other words, the system he plays in enables Baddoo to get the most out of his physical gifts and the Tigers can expect him to have a good shot at beating the system again in the future. Some offensive regression is certainly possible, but just as likely is the possibility that Baddoo is just getting warmed up.

He’s only 23 years old, with far fewer professional at-bats than most his age and an excellent coaching staff at his disposal. While many prospects his age would be closing in on 500 pro games, Baddoo entered the season with less than half as many.

That lack of experience may play out in his defense as much as his work at the plate, as Baddoo has the speed to be an excellent outfielder, but graded out poorly overall due to less than efficient routes to the ball. Developing in that regard takes in-game repetitions, and he just hasn’t had the opportunity to play that much as a pro. The elbow surgery and the off year in 2020 kept him off the field for almost two full seasons, and it’s possible that with time, his reads off the bat and route efficiency will improve.

In the same vein, continued progression at the plate may have to come as a benefit of continued reps against major league pitchers. Before suiting up in the Olde English D, Baddoo had logged a mere 1,019 professional plate appearances, all at the rookie and A-ball levels. With his tools and rapid development curve, it’s easy to believe that he can make another leap in production now that he’s in a favorable position with the faith of his organization behind him.

Even if we’re already looking at something close to the end product, Baddoo is a fantastic get for this organization. At the least, he can be penciled in as the strong side of a platoon, and a bench weapon on his off days, which is far more than anyone expected of him a year ago. The Tigers can count him as part of their foundational group, their soil ready to be sown. How much more he will be is up to him, and he seems convinced that there’s no such thing as a ceiling.