DETROIT – The sight of Akil Baddoo’s batting helmet flying off his head, unable to keep up with his blistering speed, was a recurring theme of the Tigers’ 2021 season. It has been far less frequent this year, which made Saturday night -- even in a 4-3, 11-inning loss to the White Sox -- a sight for sore eyes.
Baddoo’s helmet bobbed off his head as he sped toward second base on his third-inning triple down the right-field line. It was about to fall off his head as he slid into second on his eighth-inning stolen base to put the tying run into scoring position; he grabbed it off his head as catcher Yasmani Grandal’s throw sailed into the outfield and he briefly weighed whether to try for third.
A year after Baddoo’s breakout season, the flying helmet is still a running theme on the team. Manager A.J. Hinch joked that the helmet might have blocked Baddoo’s view of third-base coach Ramon Santiago as he rounded third on Riley Greene’s infield single.
“The helmet usually comes off in some capacity,” Hinch deadpanned in his postgame press conference.
But as replays showed, Baddoo’s helmet stayed on for most of his mad dash home, only flying off as he sped into home plate and beat Elvis Andrus’ throw standing up. Baddoo saw Santiago as he initially waved him home, expecting Greene’s ground ball to get through, then throw up a stop sign as Andrus dove to stop the ball. Baddoo simply was running too fast to stop without having to retreat.
“It was kind of instinct and also just knowing where I'm at,” Baddoo said. “By then, if [Andrus] thought I was going to go back, he was probably going to throw to third, so my chances are better off just going home and being safe there. It ended up working out.”
It was a daring play that completed a game-tying rally without a ball getting out of the infield. But then, Greene’s grounder was the only ball in play. It put Baddoo’s skill set on display at a time when everyone could use a reminder of what the 24-year-old former Rule 5 Draft pick can do.
“It's a difference maker,” Hinch said. “We are a completely different team when we can add that dimension, just putting pressure on the opponent to giving us more run-scoring opportunities. Obviously we haven't swung the bat consistently all year. If you can give yourself some extra opportunities by using your legs, it's a ton different. The triple to the stolen base, even the threat of a stolen base.
“In a perfect world, you get on base like that and create some havoc, it's a good version of our team.”
Adding that dimension requires getting Baddoo on base by any way possible, a different approach than the power display that made him a sensation last year. It means more balls in play, more walks and fewer strikeouts.
“It's just taking advantage of whatever they give me,” Baddoo said. “So if that's a walk, a bloop hit, a hard ground ball, then I have to make them stumble and hurry up and throw and I end up beating it out, stuff like that, just using my legs and always putting pressure on the defense as much as I can.”
Baddoo is showing signs of that lately, given a chance at more regular playing time. His third-inning triple punctuated a 10-pitch battle with White Sox starter Davis Martin. Baddoo fouled off five pitches, including a nasty curveball, and ran the count full before turning on a fastball down and in.
Three innings later, Baddoo jumped a first-pitch fastball from Martin and sent a 105.6-mph line drive up the middle. The ball had a 69 percent hit probability according to Statcast, but Andrus beat the odds with a diving grab behind second base.
The three consecutive pickoff attempts from Kendall Graveman after Baddoo’s four-pitch walk in the eighth demonstrated what everyone knew: Baddoo was going to try to steal second. It’s the kind of theft that former manager Jim Leyland called the test of a true basestealer, and Baddoo made it easily. A couple pitches later, he got his revenge on Andrus.
"He thought he was going to stop,” White Sox interim manager Miguel Cairo said of Andrus, “and he didn't stop and it happens."
As the Tigers weigh a potential glut of left-handed-hitting corner outfielders this offseason, it was a good flashback.
“I'm seeing the ball well,” Baddoo said. “Just gotta keep it going, finish strong.”