Cedric Mullins’ climb from Double-A to AL All-Star candidate

When you find his name, seventh as of yesterday, among the OPS leaders in the American League, Cedric Mullins is keeping very good company. One spot ahead of him was Boston’s J.D. Martinez and one spot behind was Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox. A few spots ahead were players like Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. A few behind were the likes of José Ramírez, Carlos Correa and Nelson Cruz.

The Orioles center fielder is indeed keeping very good company. He is among the best players in the American League right now, and we await the final 101 games to see if he can stay there.

Thumbnail image for Mullins-Rounds-3rd-Black-sidebar.jpgAfter going 1-for-4 Wednesday and extending his hitting streak to nine games, he is batting .323/.392/.536 with a .928 OPS. He’s hit to all fields and shown some power while also keeping a good approach. He is not getting many bunt hits for now, as teams have taken that away from him some nights. Sure hasn’t hurt his productivity.

His move to bat only left-handed and give up switch-hitting has proven to be a great decision. He is batting .311 with an .851 OPS batting left against left. Last year batting as a right-handed hitter versus southpaws, he hit .171 with a .502 OPS.

Mullins brings speed and energy to the top of the lineup every day, aspects of his game that will not go into a slump. His defense is outstanding each night. He’s made two “plays of the year” already, one running back into right-center out by the warning track and the other a diving catch in left-center to start the game on Wednesday against the Mets’ Jonathan Villar. If you hit to his right, left, front or back, he will probably run it down.

In looking for reasons that Mullins could continue to play at this very high level, the speed and defense come to mind. They will be there every night. He is a player that could go 0-for-4 and still have a big impact on a game.

Also, his ability to make offensive adjustments is rather impressive. A few weeks ago, when his average had dropped to around .290, manager Brandon Hyde remarked that some teams were busting him inside to trying and crowd him. Mullins then turned on a few pitches and drove them to right, either out of the park or for extra bases.

At another time, Hyde mentioned that Mullins was working on hitting the ball on the ground to the left side against shifts. Some teams bring the third baseman in on the grass while the shortstop plays him up the middle, leaving a gap to hit the ball through. Mullins has had a few hits that way recently. He adjusted to their adjustment.

Yes, a real problem for the defense.

Mullins’ strikeout rate is down from last year, 24.2 to 17.8, and his walk rate is up from 5.2 to 9.8. That would be a career best if maintained.

Some of the Statcast numbers look strong too. His average exit velocity is up from 88.6 mph to 89.5. His hard-hit percentage has improved from 31.8 to 40.2. He is seeing more breaking balls this year and hits them better, with a batting average last year of .233 on breaking balls that is now .281. On defense, he ranks in the 81st percentile in outfielder jump and 99th in outs above average.

So pretty good. And good across the board.

When watching Mullins now, it can be hard to remember this same player was batting .094 in 22 games to start the 2019 season. He was sent down to Triple-A and hit just .205. Then he was sent down to Double-A. He ended that year helping Bowie advance to the Eastern League Championship Series with a .743 OPS. He was not raking, but you could see he was slowly getting back on track. That track has been trending upward ever since.

Sometimes in baseball there can be teams that give up on players too soon. Hyde talked about that recently. and the Orioles are clearly glad they were not one of those teams and that Mullins was not one of those players.

“I think the game is becoming a little bit more impatient with players,” said Hyde. “And guys are getting to the big leagues quick. And it’s very, very hard to play in the major leagues. There are adjustments that you make once you get here. It’s hard to get here, and then once you get here you have to make constant adjustments. And that’s not easy to do for a young player. Especially guys get here and a lot of times haven’t faced too much adversity in the minor leagues. And figure they can do here what they did down there and it will work out. You want them to believe that, but then there are adjustments that happen throughout.

“You know there are some really good players in this game right now that have gone back to the minor leagues at some point early in their career. And, I was with Anthony Rizzo. He came up in San Diego, struggled. Two years later, he’s an All-Star type player. And, that’s not uncommon. It’s not uncommon for young guys to have some failures up here, go down there, know what they need to work on, and when they come back they are ready to go.”

Mullins was one of the guys that had to take a step or two back to eventually move forward and enjoy major league success.

“He had some early success,” Hyde remarked. “Had a tough start in ‘19. Understood there are some adjustments he needed to make. Not only swing-wise, but defense, etc. How to manage an at-bat. And he went back down there with the right attitude and worked his tail off, and now you are seeing the results of a lot of hard work and dealing with adversity.”

Mullins was a 13th-round draft pick in 2015 out of Campbell University. This was not a player that played in the SEC or ACC. There were 402 players drafted ahead of him, and he signed for $100,000. In a trip down memory lane, I noted his big year in 2016 at Single-A Delmarva in this article from October of that year. He was one of eight minor leaguers to reach double digits in doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases while hitting .273 for Delmarva. You could see a lot of potential for a player that was not a high pick. The article even notes how he was already showing much better numbers as lefty batter.

Now the player who put up big numbers for the Shorebirds is putting up big numbers for the Orioles. He is showing leadership skills and looks like an All-Star.

More Mullins looking back: In this story from June 2015, not long after the Orioles drafted him, I quoted Mullins during an interview with recent draft picks at then-short-season Single-A Aberdeen. I think it’s the first time I ever quoted Mullins as a pro player.

In spring training of 2020, Mullins reflected on that 2019 season, when he fell all the way to Double-A. He said then that ending the year playing well at Bowie was big for his confidence and his career.

“The last of the season at Bowie, though, shot it (my confidence) back up. Me introducing some new things to my swing worked. It was a big deal for me to not go into the offseason with a complete failure of a season,” he said in this story.

During the 2019 Eastern League playoffs, then-Bowie hitting coach Keith Bodie saw Mullins make some nice gains on his watch late that year. Bodie told me he had strong confidence that Mullins would return to the majors and play well.

“I have no doubt whatsoever,” Bodie said for this story. “He has power from both sides of the plate and he has bat speed. He’s a high-fastball hitter with quick hands. When he gets pitches he can handle, he can drive the ball with authority. He can also beat you with his legs. He can steal a base and can run down balls in the outfield.”

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