It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Cedric Mullins. When he debuted in 2018 and pushed longtime Orioles center fielder Adam Jones to right field, the switch-hitting Mullins demonstrated qualities that the O’s desperately needed. He added speed and defense, and he also hit well enough in the minors while rising rapidly through the O’s system, that he seemed to be, at best, a starting outfielder for years to come. At worst? Maybe a fourth-outfielder type.
But things rarely go according to plan, and the last few years have been a roller-coaster ride for Mullins. They’ve included demotions and disappointment and lots of change. In 2019 alone, he went from starting in center field and batting leadoff on Opening Day for the Orioles to stretches in the minor leagues for Triple-A Norfolk and Double-A Bowie.
Soon after, Mullins rebuilt his swing with help from hitting instructor Rick Strickland in the offseason and was introduced to technology and data-driven terminology to bolster his offensive approach. And just this spring, he gave up switch-hitting altogether and focused entirely on maximizing his abilities from the left side.
Mullins showed enough promise in the spring to once again earn the starting nod on Opening Day in center field while batting leadoff. So far, he hasn’t looked back. Sixteen games in, he has a .355/.412/.516 batting line and a 168 wRC+ that’s tied for 24th best among qualified hitters. His 0.8 fWAR is tied for 12th best in baseball, and it’s easily the best among O’s position players.
As always, the same questions persist for a player off to an unexpectedly great start. How is he doing this? And can he keep it going? Here’s what you need to know:
Abandoning switch-hitting is working.
Anyone realistically could expect hiccups from the major change of giving up hitting from one side of the plate. However, from Day One, Mullins looked more comfortable than you’d expect in the spring.
That comfort has translated to the regular season as well. In 22 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers, Mullins has collected eight hits and two walks. It’s a little silly to compare splits this early, but just go with it:
vs. RHP: 168 wRC+ (46 PA)
vs. LHP: 166 wRC+ (22 PA)
It’s worth noting that Mullins is sporting a BABIP of .467 and that seven of his eight extra-base hits have come against right-handers. Still, he’s more than holding his own in his first extended stint from the left side, and looking competent against southpaws would go a long way toward Mullins continuing to be effective at the plate.
His Statcast profile is better, but not great.
Mullins will most likely never be a Statcast darling, but his batted ball data has improved in several categories. His average exit velocity (89.9), expected batting average (.273), expected slugging percentage (.422), expected wOBA (.331) and hard-hit percentage (43.5%) are all better than any of his first three major-league seasons. The modest increase in walks is also encouraging.
No one is expecting Mullins to be a power hitter. He also won’t keep being this fortunate on balls in play because no one does. But making more consistent, solid contact is never a bad thing, especially when it comes from someone with Mullins’ speed (85th percentile in sprint speed).
His plate discipline is encouraging.
Early in the season, it’s fun to watch for little improvements that players have made and hoping they stick. For Mullins, one key has been not chasing as many pitches out of the strike zone. So far, he’s offered at a little less than 20% of balls out of the zone, which would be a career low for him.
Overall, he’s swinging less (43.8%) than he has since 2018 (40.6%) while making more contact than ever (83.5%). His called and swinging strike percentage of 23.2% would also be a career low. It’s a goal for all hitters to swing at pitches in the strike zone and not get fooled. We’ll see how Mullins continues to handle this over the next few months.
He hasn’t needed to bunt — yet.
In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Orioles led all of baseball with 16 bunt hits. Mullins had nine of them — two more than the Rockies’ Garrett Hampson. Through the O’s first 16 games, the O’s have yet to collect a bunt for a hit.
Mullins is too good of a bunter to get through the whole season without a bunt hit. They’ll come at some point. Perhaps he feels confident enough to not rely on his bunting, or maybe opposing teams are more aware and ready for Mullins’ not-so-secret weapon. Regardless, don’t be surprised to see him drop one down sometime soon.
He’s still solid in center field.
Despite Mullins’ speed, he’s not a huge stolen base threat on the basepaths. With teams valuing outs and being so risk-averse, those types of players are rare. But there’s no holding back his speed in the outfield, where he’s able to cover plenty of ground and run down numerous balls in the left- and right-center field gap.
Since 2018, Mullins has accumulated 9 outs above average, according to Statcast, which puts him in the top 30 among all outfielders. He’s off to a +1 start in 2021, and it would be intriguing to see what he’s able to do with a full season.
You don’t need me to tell you that Mullins is almost certainly not a top 30 player in all of baseball. He will most likely start struggling at some point, and things won’t be as fun.
But that he’s made it to this point at all — where you actually have to wonder if he’s one of the O’s best players going forward — is a remarkable achievement for someone who could be toiling away in the minors if he didn’t put in the work and make the necessary adjustments.
It’s wonderful and enjoyable even if you know it’s not guaranteed to continue. No one knows that better than Mullins.
All statistics are entering play April 20.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox