Akil Baddoo was surprise of spring for Detroit Tigers. It was a no brainer to keep him.

Jeff Seidel
Detroit Free Press

Fifteen days before Christmas, Akil Baddoo was at his childhood home, living in the basement at his parents' house in Conyers, Georgia.

The Rule 5 draft had started and the audio was being live streamed on MLB.com.

“He and his dad were listening to it,” Akilah Baddoo, Akil's mother, said. “I was working in my little office area.”

The Twins left Baddoo unprotected. He had not played a game in nearly two years because he had Tommy John surgery in 2019 and the minor league season was lost in 2020 because of COVID-19.

“Akil told me that there was a possibility (he would be selected), but he kind of thought he wouldn’t,” his mother said. “No one had seen him for two years, so they didn’t know what he was doing.”

Akil Baddoo has four homers in his first 28 at-bats of the spring for the Tigers in 2021.

John Baddoo, Akilah’s husband, did not think his son would be taken. “I doubt it — nah,” John said. “They probably aren’t even thinking about him.”

But Baddoo, 22, was at the top of the Detroit Tigers’ wish list because of his speed, size (6 feet 1, 210 pounds), raw power and potential to become an outstanding outfielder.

Akilah Baddoo heard screaming in the other room: “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!’”

“What just happened?” she asked.

The Tigers selected him with the third pick overall.

“What the heck does that mean?” she asked. “I can’t believe the Twins traded you. I can’t believe they got rid of you!”

[ Why Akil Baddoo thinks he can stick with the Tigers ]

“No, it’s an opportunity for him,” John Baddoo said.

“Well, all right, congratulations, I guess,” she said.

She decided to turn it into a celebration and made a quick trip to Bruce's Sweet Sensations, a local desert shop and bought cupcakes.

“We celebrated with a little cupcake and ice cream,” she said. “And then he started getting all these calls. His agent called and explained it.”

The Tigers paid $100,000 for Baddoo’s rights. The Tigers must keep Baddoo on their MLB roster all season or else offer him back to the Twins for $50,000. In essence, the Tigers were making a $50,000 gamble on a left-handed-hitting outfielder who was a second-round pick in 2016.

The Detroit Tigers selected outfielder Akil Baddoo from the Minnesota Twins with the No. 3 pick in the 2020 Rule 5 draft.

“Then I understood it really thoroughly,” his mother said. “I was like, ‘Oh! My! Gosh! Are you kidding me?’”

Baddoo had a chance to play in the big leagues — not some nebulous date in the future, but this year.

“I was like, ‘Akil, this is an amazing opportunity for you to show them.'”

And then spring training happened.

Baddoo turned into the story of the spring for the Tigers. He has shown an ability to hit for power, get on base, take walks, steal bases, drive in runs and play smart defense, always being in the right place.

Baddoo wasn’t just one of the best players on the Tigers this spring — he was one of the best players in all of baseball.

Obviously, the Tigers liked him or they wouldn’t have selected him. But they didn’t expect him to do this.

"He exceeded even the best of expectations that we had coming in," Tigers manager AJ Hinch said.

Baddoo has played so well that he forced the Tigers to juggle their plans, keep five outfielders and create a spot on the roster for him. They couldn't let him go. He won the job.

Maybe he is just a spring training phenom. But maybe not.

At worst, it makes sense to bring him to Detroit, let him continue to develop and see what he can do in the majors.

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Detroit Tigers outfielder Akil Baddoo (60) prepares for batting practice before the start of the game against the Toronto Blue Jays during spring training at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida on Thursday, March 25, 2021.

Welcome home

Baddoo got hurt May 2019, while doing outfield drills playing for the Fort Myers Miracle, the Twins' low minor league team.

“I made a couple of throws to third,” he said, “and I made a throw to home and it completely popped.”

He blew out his UCL and required elbow surgery.

Baddoo, the middle child in a family with five boys, went home and moved into his parents' basement, which is basically like an apartment.

“I think him coming home felt really, really good because Akil fell right back into being the kid, fighting with his younger brothers about them stealing his socks, or one of them taking his sneakers or somebody took his nice underwear,” she said. “That's still what it is like — they still argue about who's gonna wash dishes upstairs.”

He started working out at a CrossFit center and doing yoga. “It kind of made me stronger and then molded me,” Baddoo said, of his rehabilitation. “I'm just glad that I'm 100% now.”

After the pandemic shut down baseball, John Baddoo cut down some trees in his backyard, intending to put up a batting cage, unsure how long the isolation would last. But that batting cage never went up and they used the area to play catch, so Akil could strengthen his arm.

“He never doubted himself,” John said. “And we never doubted him.”

That inner strength might be the most surprising thing about Baddoo. More than anything, Tigers manager AJ Hinch has been impressed with Baddoo’s composure: he is never rattled, acts like he belongs and never looks uncomfortable.

"His calmness about how he plays is something that I've been most impressed by,” Hinch said. “He had no season last year. I feel like he's grown up as a man and grown up as a player without playing, and that's very unique."

Tigers outfielder Akil Baddoo as a toddler.

Changing his approach

Plenty have doubted Baddoo over the years. He hit just .214 in High-A ball, striking out 39 times in 117 at bats.

“Built like an NFL defensive back, he has above average raw power and speed, but it comes with questions about the bat,” Fangraphs wrote, ranking him as the Tigers' No. 18 prospect. “He has an excellent understanding of the strike zone, but misses plenty of off-speed pitches in the zone, with some scouts pointing to a swing that is far from smooth and simple. He’s a solid center fielder, but has not recovered well from a previous Tommy John surgery and has a below average arm.”

But Baddoo hit .357 in the Appalachian League (rookie ball) in 2017. He was concentrating on hitting the ball hard and ended up with 15 doubles and two triples in 33 games. He had just four home runs.

But then he got home run crazy. He hit 11 home runs at Single-A Cedar Rapids and his batting average dropped to .243.

“He got pull happy,” said Robin Cope, who has worked with Baddoo since he was 15. "He wanted to take everything out of the yard rather than take whatever the pitcher gave him."

Cope pitched in the Seattle Mariners minor league system for five seasons, but never made it to the big leagues. He has worked with Baddoo on his mental approach since he was a teenager.

“Go back and look at the numbers in the Appalachian League,” Cope said. “That's what you could possibly have in Detroit. Great kid. He's gonna be a phenomenal professional. He has the character and mental approach to play the game.”

This spring, Baddoo changed his approach back to what it was in rookie ball. He is just trying to hit the ball hard, letting the home runs come, but not focusing on it.

"We talked," John Baddoo said. "And I said, ‘you know, after we've looked at it, if you put the ball in play more with your speed and your power, you will go above and beyond because it's just a matter of contact.’

“So that's the only real change in what you see now. He's just putting the ball in play more. That leads to base hits, home runs, walks, steals, you know, everything.”

Detroit Tigers' Akil Baddoo makes a catch against the New York Yankees at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla. on March 9, 2021.

The pressure is on

Baddoo’s full name — Akil Neomon Baddoo — is an homage to his parents, who were both born in New York City and started dating in high school.

His first name is the male form of his mother’s name. She is a project manager at a payroll company.

“It means intelligent,” she said. 

Baddoo’s middle name — Neomon — honors the tribe in Ghana from which his father’s family came from originally.

“I wanted him to have a little piece of me and a little piece of his father's family,” Akilah said.

She thought he would be a soccer player. Akilah’s family is from Trinidad and everybody played soccer. But as a child, Baddoo picked up a plastic bat and had an amazing natural ability.

“I began to throw pitches to him,” John said. “And he was consistently hitting the ball with all kinds of ferocity. He could just repeat it. So naturally, we signed him up for baseball. And about after his first year, we joined the travel circuit.”

His entire life has been set up for this moment — it’s the nature of today’s travel ball. He has been playing high-level, high-pressure baseball since he was 8. He has barnstormed around the country, facing the best of the best since he was in elementary school, learning how to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, learning how to take skepticism, usually playing up an age level, playing against bigger and more experienced players — usually, finding a way to succeed. He has played in countless showcases in front of countless scouts — first college and then professional — always needing to perform, learning how to deal with that pressure.

“Everybody is asking you questions, ‘man, how are you performing? How are you doing this?’” I asked him. “But the way I look at it, you have had to perform since you were 8. Is that true?”

“Exactly,” he said.

Tigers prospect Akil Baddoo poses for a photo during his days in youth baseball.

Train up a child

Will Baddoo keep hitting in the majors?

There is a long list of spring training phenoms who flamed out in Florida and never hit in the big leagues.

And you know what? Baddoo feeds on that skepticism.

Every morning before he goes to Tiger Town, he talks on the phone with his mother.

“I wake up and — ,” she laughs. “Akil calls it an old lady workout in the morning with my girlfriends on Zoom. So, 6 o'clock, I'm up. And he's like, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’”

They start talking and she starts telling stories, filling him with encouragement, reminding him about how he has beaten the odds over and over.

“I was just telling him,” she said. “People act like you're a phenom, like where did you come from? Like who is this kid? I'm like, you've been playing ball since you were 5 years old and you are going through the same things. People doubting you.”

When he was 10 years old, playing up on a team of 12-year-olds, the other parents would freak out, wondering why he was batting so high in the order and taking their kid’s playing time.

Or when he went to high school and was moved up to varsity as a freshman and some questioned why he was suddenly starting in the outfield.

“It's nothing new,” she said. “You're dealing with the same things. How did you deal with it?”

The worst was when he joined GBSA, a travel team in Georgia. It was loaded with future MLB draft picks.

“You remember when you were going to play for GBSA?” Alikah told her son one morning. “You were a little bit nervous, because you're like, these guys are bigger than me. They're hitting balls over the trees. And we noticed the fear. I was like, that's it. You're playing with GBSA. Because you showed fear.”

Fear is not allowed in the Baddoo family.

“What happened?” she asked. “You loved it, right?”

“Yep,” Baddoo said to his mother. “I did.”

“It's the same thing,” she said.

The same, just a little bit bigger stage.

On and on it goes.

“We talk,” Akilah said, “and he keeps saying, ‘thank you for that.’”

You want to know the secret of Akil Baddoo this spring?

It’s because he of those phone calls with his mother, pumping him with encouragement.

Because he is so grounded that he celebrated joining the Tigers by getting cupcakes.

Because he prepared for this moment by facing challenges his entire life. Maybe, not this big. But they were big at the time.

Because of playing at East Cobb and GBSA and all those talks with Cope about dealing with failure and struggling his first year of high school, and because his parents once saw fear in his eyes.

And they refused to let him quit.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.