The Orioles have torn their roster down as part of a massive rebuild over the past few seasons. The organization has acquired a collection of highly-regarded prospect talent the fanbase is certainly hoping will comprise the core of a contender down the line. In the interim, though, the MLB product has been quite poor. The Orioles went 126-258 (32.8% winning percentage) between 2018-20, and their 23-48 record this season is the worst in the American League.
This kind of rebuild does offer an opportunity for less-heralded players to get some run at the major league level, though. Most won’t take advantage, resulting in a lack of teamwide success, but an underrated player will occasionally perform at a high enough level to cement himself as a building block of the organization’s long-term future. This season, Cedric Mullins has done exactly that.
A 13th-round pick out of Campbell University in 2015, Mullins performed well enough in the minors to generate a bit of attention. Baseball America twice ranked him among the O’s top 30 prospects, suggesting he was most likely to settle in as a fourth outfielder. In 2018, Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs noted that he had an intriguing toolset and minor league track record but suggested the consensus opinion among talent evaluators was that he’d be more of a role player than a true regular.
Mullins made his MLB debut late that season and performed in line with those expectations over the next couple seasons. Between 2018-20, he hit .225/.290/.342 (73 wRC+). He was always a good baserunner and made some improvements at the plate last season, but he still looked like more of a placeholder than a core piece entering the year.
Over the past few months, Mullins has changed that outlook by outperforming even the most optimistic projections. He’s hitting .319/.389/.552 (158 wRC+) with thirteen home runs across 304 plate appearances. Not only has he emerged as a force at the plate, he’s been one of the game’s rangiest defenders. Statcast credits Mullins with seven outs above average this season, tied with Brett Phillips for second among outfielders (Manuel Margot is plus-9). Advanced metrics that take arm strength into account (like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating) have been a little less enthused, but all agree that Mullins has at least been above-average in center field this year.
Factoring in his contributions on both sides of the ball, Mullins has been one of the most valuable players in the sport. FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement metric places Mullins third among position players (fourth if you also include Shohei Ohtani’s pitching value), trailing only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Ronald Acuña Jr. Baseball Reference’s version of the statistic slots Mullins seventh.
There’s room to debate where Mullins truly fits among players like Guerrero, Ohtani, Fernando Tatís Jr., Marcus Semien, Carlos Correa and Matt Olson this year. That he’s even in that conversation, though, is a testament to the campaign he’s had. Mullins will almost certainly be elected to the All-Star Game, and he’s tracking towards appearing on MVP ballots if he can continue to produce like this in the second half of the season.
Mullins probably won’t remain this good. His .363 batting average on balls in play is 73 points higher than the .290 league average. A quality runner, he should be expected to run a slightly better than average BABIP, but he’ll have a hard time keeping it quite so high. Statcast’s batted ball metrics suggest his results have outpaced the quality of his contact a bit, and his prior track record of subpar hitting can’t be completely discounted.
There’s plenty of room for Mullins to take a bit of a step back while remaining a decidedly above-average player, though. His defense gives him a strong floor to begin with, and the 26-year-old has made some substantive changes that suggest he’s turned a corner at the plate. Most notably, Mullins abandoned switch-hitting this year, hitting left-handed permanently. He’s been much better at hitting opposing southpaws left-on-left than he was stepping into the right-handed batter’s box. But that’s only come in 97 plate appearances, and he’s posting career-best production against righties this year too.
Mullins is striking out less than he did last year against pitchers of both handedness (albeit with a more significant drop against lefties), making more contact when he swings, and drawing walks at a career-best rate. He’s also almost completely stopped popping the ball up on the infield, even as his overall fly ball rate is higher than ever. Perhaps abandoning his right-handed swing to focus solely on hitting lefty has made Mullins more comfortable with his mechanics overall. Maybe his strong production against righties is completely unrelated to that decision. Whatever the reason, he’s made significant strides as a hitter.
There’s been plenty of attention on which players the still-rebuilding O’s might move before the July 30 trade deadline. Mullins, though, looks like a safe bet to stick around. He’s controllable through 2025 and won’t reach arbitration-eligibility until after next season. Even if there’s some regression forthcoming, he’s made enough process improvements to believe he’s truly taken his game to another level as he enters his prime years. Mullins looks to have legitimately broken out in 2021, and he’s the type of player the Orioles can build around as their top prospects matriculate to the big league level. Baltimore fans haven’t had much to celebrate in recent seasons, but Mullins’ emergence is a reason to continue to watch as the team scuffles in the near-term, and a sign of hope for the future.