April can be a weird time for baseball fans. Baseball is back, which is a whole lot of fun, but it’s hard to know what to believe in terms of the results on the field. This year, there were some minor surprises with the Orioles’ lineup decisions in the early going.
Dwight Smith Jr. has been an everyday lineup fixture in left field, and Rio Ruiz and Hanser Alberto are getting plenty of regular infield work. Mike Wright and Miguel Castro have pitched a handful of times in late-game situations by necessity, as manager Brandon Hyde has opted to deploy Mychal Givens in high-leverage situations. And this new coaching staff is continuing to sit Chris Davis often as his struggles at the plate continue.
One other early surprise is that Cedric Mullins, the presumed center fielder and leadoff man, is doing both of those things … but only when a right-handed pitcher is on the mound. And that’s because Mullins, a switch-hitter, is more of a weapon from the left side of the plate.
It’s no shock that a team would view Mullins this way: At every level of play in his O’s career, he’s been superior against right-handed pitching. With short-season Aberdeen in 2015, his OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was 216 points better from the left side (.765 vs. .549). At Low-A Delmarva in 2016, his OPS was 199 points higher (.831 vs. .632). At Double-A Bowie in 2017, it was 259 points higher (.863 vs. .604). And in 2018, when Mullins spent time in Bowie, Triple-A Norfolk and Baltimore, his OPS was 170 points better against right-handed pitching (.815 vs. .645).
Late last season, while Mullins was seeing his first playing time in the majors, then-manager Buck Showalter occasionally used Mullins in a platoon role. Mullins, who took over in center field in mid-August as Adam Jones ceded the position and moved to right field, sometimes found himself on the bench when a left-handed starter was on the mound, with the likes of Joey Rickard and the newly acquired John Andreoli seeing brief work in center field. Still, Mullins did play most of the time, including nearly every game in September.
Sitting the developing Mullins at any point to get extra looks at Andreoli, of all players, still sounds a bit weird, but Mullins’ brief time in the majors continues to reveal platoon concerns. From the left side, his weighted runs created plus (wRC+), where 100 is the league average for position players and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average, is 96 in 163 big league plate appearances through April 10. In 63 plate appearances from the right side, his wRC+ is 48.
The assumption before the season was that it’s too early to label Mullins as strictly a platoon bat, and Hyde is echoing that sentiment. Before the Orioles’ March 31 matchup against the Yankees in New York, he told reporters Mullins was “still working on his right-handed swing” and that “he’s shown a lot of progress in that. He’s going to get right-handed at-bats.”
Still, Hyde qualified that somewhat as well: “This isn’t a set deal left-right situation. I’m going to be doing it on matchups. … Everybody’s going to play and everybody’s going to get at-bats. We’re going to match up night to night and try to win the game. That’s kind of what I’m used to. And we’re going to go from there.”
To his credit, Mullins is aware of the situation and knows his production against left-handed pitching needs to improve.
“I’ve made some strides with my right-handed swing, especially this past year … so I’ll just continue to progress and make the conscious effort to work on it,” he told The Baltimore Sun early in the season.
As executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias made clear before, during and immediately after spring training, the Orioles’ No. 1 goal is to improve the overall amount of talent in the organization. They’re also going to place a heavy emphasis on success in the minor leagues, which is a significant reason why promising young players like Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle, Chance Sisco and Tanner Scott, among others, started the year in the minors.
Mullins avoided a similar fate despite having played in fewer than 60 games in Triple-A and despite posting an uninspiring batting line during spring training (.151/.262/.377 in 62 plate appearances, though spring stats rarely mean much). It helps that Mullins found success during each of his stops before his major league promotion. Also, thanks to his speed (he ranked in the top 30 in sprint speed last year, per Statcast data) and glove (he can play all three outfield positions), he brings more to the table than just what he can do with his bat.
That said, the O’s are all about examining whatever data is available, and taking platoon splits into account is far from advanced analytical thinking. Based on what he’s done in the majors to this point, there’s no guarantee that Mullins sticks on the Orioles’ roster for the full season, let alone that he’ll develop enough from the right side of the plate to earn even more work.
On top of that, an analysis earlier this year by Shane Tourtellotte for The Hardball Times, examining whether batters can learn to narrow their platoon splits, came to the conclusion that there is “generally little evidence batters learn how to hit better from their weak side” and suggested that perhaps these players would be better off simply focusing on what they do well to increase their platoon advantage. Most switch-hitters don’t abandon hitting from either side of the plate, which is something former outfielder Shane Victorino did in 2013 to some short-term success, but maybe more should try.
If a wide platoon split wasn’t a big enough question mark already for Mullins, the O’s added an intriguing outfield option in Smith, who was acquired for basically nothing from the Toronto Blue Jays (just international bonus slot money). It’s also only a matter of time (and health) before outfield prospects Hays and Diaz make their way to Baltimore — and maybe Anthony Santander, DJ Stewart and Ryan McKenna, too.
Of course, the Orioles have more important things to worry about than whether Mullins starts to look more like an everyday player than a fourth outfielder type. But for a team that’s now heavily investing more in player development at all levels of the organization, it’ll be interesting to see if Mullins can make the needed improvements.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 253: April 2019