Akil Baddoo, Where He Belongs

You can see, if you want, the teenager who signed with the Minnesota Twins in 2016: a second-round pick from Salem High School in Georgia, leaving an offer from the University of Kentucky to make a go of it in the minors. You can see, in fact, his pre-draft workout for the Twins. It’s right here on YouTube, with a modest thousand views: not the best quality, not the best angle, but he’s there, swinging away, his face turned away from the camera. The video was uploaded by John Baddoo, his dad, whose channel features just one other video — again, starring his son Akil, this time going up to bat in Puerto Rico. From behind the dugout in the sparsely-populated stands — so far that, at first, it’s unclear who is being filmed — the phone camera slowly focuses on Akil as he takes his warm-up swings. Its shaky zoom follows him to the plate. When he puts the ball in play, the video ends abruptly. We don’t know what happened to that ball, whether it was a hit or an out, but it doesn’t matter: We saw his patience, his swing. When this video was uploaded in 2015, he was only 17 years old.

Now, Akil Baddoo is 22. He is, as of last week, a major leaguer. And his debut week has been unlike any other. He made his first appearance on Sunday. His parents were there at Comerica Park, watching, just as they had been when their son was in high school. And on the very first pitch Baddoo saw in the majors, he homered.

That, in itself, is some incredible magic — of all the players who’ve debuted in the major leagues, a number that is currently approaching 20,000, only 31 have done what Baddoo did — seen one pitch and sent it out of the ballpark. But it didn’t stop there. The next day, Baddoo hit another home run: a grand slam, in fact.

And the day after that — facing the Twins, the team he was drafted by, whose rookie-ball team he played on for three seasons, who allowed him to be picked up by the Tigers in the Rule 5 draft this offseason — he walked it off.

This is not someone whose arrival in the majors was heralded with much in the way of expectation. This is someone who had not played a game above High-A — who had, in fact, only played 29 games even at that low level. This is someone whose very presence with the major league team is conditional. There have been Rule 5 draftees who have gone on to become successful major leaguers, but they are the exceptions.

Baddoo began his career as a 17-year-old in Naples, Florida, with the GCL Twins. He struggled there, in his first professional season. Over 38 games, his line was a meager .178/.299/.271. He stole eight bases — this fan writeup describes him as “lightning fast” — but he was beleaguered by strikeouts, unable to connect with any power. It was, all in all, what one might expect from a 17-year-old in his first summer as a professional, and the next season, sure enough, was vastly improved. He continued to make use of his speed, and cut his strikeout rate nearly in half. When he advanced mid-season to the Appalachian League, he rose to the challenge: walking more than he struck out (to the tune of a near-.500 OBP), hitting for more power.

The step forward was encouraging enough for Baddoo to move up to the Cedar Rapids Kernels the following season. The success he had there in the Midwest League, in his first full professional season, was not as eye-popping as his line in the Appy League, but it still showed signs of development. He led the team in runs scored, a testament to his on-base ability, as well as in stolen bases; he led the league in triples, and improved steadily over the course of the year after a rough adjustment period in April.

The next year, he was promoted again — and then, Tommy John. A year lost to recovery; the year after that, thanks to the pandemic, the entire minor league season was lost. After so much time away, returning to baseball in a changed world, Baddoo’s future was uncertain.

Back when his first season began, when he was a teenager, Baddoo spoke to a local newspaper about his excitement at starting pro baseball. He talked about getting rid of all his Yankees gear — “the Minnesota Twins are my favorite now.” And when asked about how long he thought his road to the major leagues would be, his answer was optimistic: “Not far, if I put the work in. I just have to stay healthy and consistent.” Despite the odds, despite his young age, he was confident that he was in the right place. “I belong here,” he said. What a thing for a 17-year-old to say — a kid, at that age when it can feel so hard to belong anywhere. A kid surrounded by professional baseball players, almost all of whom were much older. Someone whose life had just changed immensely, about to embark on a needlessly and notoriously difficult journey.

Five years later, five years through the tumult of the minor leagues, through injury, surgery and recovery, the uncertainty of the Rule 5 draft, playing his way onto a major-league team with a month of torrid baseball, he says it again — with a first week that, no matter how the rest of this year goes, or the rest of his career goes, will not be forgotten. Not by baseball’s recorders of history; not by the people in the stands. And not by him and his parents: there for this moment as they were back in high school, at his first workout for the Twins, in Puerto Rico, for countless hours and days on travel ball fields around the U.S., for all the thankless days that no one on the outside will ever see or fathom. Once, it was his father’s shaky phone camera, picking him out of a crowd, the one eye trained solely on him. Now it is the eyes of an entire sport — a series of moments that thousands of people will watch and watch again.

“It was almost like when he hit one out when he was six years old all over again,” said John Baddoo on Sunday, smiling widely from the stands. And on Tuesday, emerging from the Gatorade shower, Akil Baddoo — “refreshed,” as he put it — smiled, too.

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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1 year ago

Obviously hard to project what he does from here on out, but would it be expected that Detroit gives him a majority of at bats over the journeymen outfielders?

Lunch Anglemember
1 year ago
Reply to  jgiegel01

I don’t think Hinch is gonna make him a starter based on only a few games, but if Baddoo keeps hitting when he gets chances I think he can definitely force his way into the lineup. Especially since he can play any OF position