Detroit Tigers: Akil Baddoo needs to adjust

Akil Baddoo swings at a pitch against the Baltimore Orioles. Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Akil Baddoo swings at a pitch against the Baltimore Orioles. Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

Detroit Tigers rookie outfielder Akil Baddoo has been one of the best stories in Major League Baseball this season.

Here at Motor City Bengals we have covered every step of it, from Detroit’s selection of Akil Baddoo in the Rule 5 Draft, to his strong spring, to his historic start and inevitable struggles.

And then we also covered his impressive, patience-driven rebound. Akil Baddoo’s 17.9% walk rate in May and June (24 walks in 134 plate appearances) was the 4th highest in the majors.

But over the past two months something very strange has happened. Akil Baddoo stopped walking.

Detroit’s young outfielder has taken a base on balls just five times in 138 plate appearances across July and August. That paltry 3.6% walk rate ranks 180th out of 184 hitters with at least 130 plate appearances.

So what in the world causes one of the most patient hitters in baseball to turn into one of the least patient hitters in baseball? Let’s try to figure it out.

First, we’ll look at some plate discipline numbers:

Key: Zone% (pitches in strike zone), Sw% (swing rate), Z-Sw% (in-zone swings), O-Sw% (out of zone swings), SwStr% (swinging strike rate)

There’s a lot of data in there, but not necessarily any answers. Akil Baddoo swung and missed a lot in April, which stands up to memory, and then in May pitchers seemed to stop throwing him strikes. He obliged by not swinging as much and walking a ton. His overall swing rate took a big jump in July, which helps explain the drop in walks, but it’s back to average so far in August.

So what gives with the high Ks and lack of walks? Is Akil Baddoo just taking more strikes this month?

Key: CStr (called strikes), CStr% (called strike percentage), O-Zone (called strikes out of zone)

Yes, it looks as though Akil Baddoo has responded to his aggressive July by being more patient in August. Unfortunately for him, it hasn’t resulted in better results at the plate.

Let’s move on to his batted ball data to see if we can learn anything from that:

Key: BIP (balls in play), xBA (expected batting average), EV (exit velocity), LA (launch angle)

Again, there are a lot of numbers up there, but we can probably narrow our focus a bit. The fluctuations in average and batting average on balls in play (BABIP) all seem fairly normal. When dealing with a sample size of about 44 batted balls per month, just three more hits can mean a 70-point difference in batting average.

What stands out are the exit velocity and launch angle numbers. Akil Baddoo’s biggest struggles this year came in the latter portion of April, but he still managed to produce a solid wOBA overall because he was hitting the ball as hard as he has all season.

His exit velocity plummeted in May, but he still put up decent numbers. A big part of that was his huge jump in walk rate, but the drop in average launch angle may have played a part. His batted ball and exit velocity numbers in May and August are nearly identical, but his average launch angle in August is much higher, and his production has been much worse.

Akil Baddoo and Launch Angle

The Launch Angle definition at offers some guidance for how to define batted balls. To them, anything with a launch angle under 10 degrees is a ground ball, while launch angles from 10-25 degrees are line drives, launch angles from 26-50 degrees are fly balls, and anything above 50 is a pop up.

That all seems simple enough, though by those definitions Akil Baddoo has been hitting nothing but line drives all year. But of course we must remember these are average numbers, and how a hitter gets to those averages is very important. So how is Akil Baddoo is getting to his average?

Ahh, there it is. Akil Baddoo’s fly balls have been turning into pop ups in August. The league-wide wOBA on fly balls in 2021 is .460, and on pop ups it’s .015.

So, that explains Akil Baddoo’s issues this month. Case closed. Thanks for coming to our TED Talk…

Oh, right, you’d probably like to know if there’s a reason for Akil Baddoo suddenly popping out at a much higher rate. Have pitchers found a new way to attack him?

The answer appears to be yes.

Attacking Akil Baddoo

If we sort Akil Baddoo’s pop ups by pitch location we see a fairly unsurprising pattern. Of Baddoo’s 19 pop ups, 12 have come on inside pitches, 5 have come on pitches away, and just 2 have been on pitches over the heart of the plate.

Those inside pitches he popped up? Eight 4-seam fastballs, two cutters, one sinker, and one slider. And the five pop ups on pitches away came on two changeups, two breaking balls (from lefties), and one sinker.

Throwing hard stuff inside and soft stuff away is Pitching 101, so we aren’t exactly breaking new ground here. Baddoo’s increase in pop ups must just be from pitchers pounding it inside more, right?

Well, that’s interesting. Pitchers have mostly targeted Akil Baddoo away all year, but they’ve really ramped up that strategy over the past two months. And now when they do come back inside with the fastball it seems Baddoo is a little bit late and prone to hitting popups.

Akil Baddoo Takes

Finally, let’s circle back to the beginning of this discussion, when we were looking at Baddoo’s dwindling walk rate. You’ll recall we determined he was taking more called strikes in August. So what kinds of pitches does Akil Baddoo take for strikes?

According to Baseball Savant, Akil Baddoo has been called out on strikes 27 times this year, with 14 of those strikeouts coming on pitches away, 4 coming on pitches in the middle of the plate, and 9 coming on pitches inside.

The data says 11 of those 14 strikeouts taken away were on some variation of a fastball, while 7 of Baddoo’s 9 strikeouts taken inside were against offspeed pitches. That’s basically the exact opposite profile of his popups.

So, it appears pitchers have Akil Baddoo all mixed up.

They are pitching him backwards, and locating backwards. When he’s expecting fastballs he gets offspeed pitches, and vice versa. When he’s looking outside they come inside, and vice versa.

It seems like a real lonely place to be as a hitter.

We don’t really have any suggestions for how Akil Baddoo can exit this slump. But, we suspect that if and when he does, it will begin with him driving the ball to the opposite field again, the way he did at the very beginning of the year.

Akil Baddoo has about five weeks to prove he can adjust again. If he can, then the Detroit Tigers can pencil him in as a big part of the future. If he can’t, we may be simply be looking at the end of a classic baseball fairy tale.

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