Austin Hays was supposed to man center field for the Orioles this season. But a fastball to the ribs derailed that plan for the time being. As is frequently the case in sports, this was a next man up type of situation. The next man up in this case was Cedric Mullins.
After yesterday’s loss to the Mets, Mullins holds a batting line of .266/.338/.328. Not ground-breaking but steady, and a marked improvement over the past couple of years. Also, he laid down his seventh bunt single of the season a couple days ago against the Mets.
Plus, you can’t mention Cedric Mullins without talking about his defense in the outfield.
Mullins has a way of gliding effortlessly to the ball. He’s the kind of player whose instinctual first step is so true that he gets to balls that other fielders would have to dive for, or would not even be able to reach for that matter.
Fortunately, Fangraphs is able to shed light on the advanced metrics that explain Mullins defense. In 170.1 innings this season — including 11 in left field, 23 in right and 136.1 in center — Mullins has an Ultimate Zone Rating of 0.9. Now let’s unpack that number, which is comprised of multiple indicators.
That UZR number includes 0.2 ARM (Outfield Arm runs above average), wherein a fielder is judged on how many runners he throws out and how many he keeps from taking an extra base, like tagging up on a fly ball or going from first to third on a single.
Now Mullins is not known for his throwing arm. On defense, that seems to be his one weakness. Opponents are aware of it too, showing their willingness to test him on the base paths since his recall from the Orioles’ secondary training site at Bowie. There was an example in the game yesterday where he made a one hop throw into second base from shallow left-center, during which the runner slid in safely ahead of the tag.
Yet another component of UZR is RngR (Range runs above average), which is influenced by how frequently a fielder is able to reach balls in his proximity. Of course the big question here is what defines ‘proximity’ and how does one go about assessing every player equally in that way. But alas, that seems like more of a discussion for the comments section, so have at it. Anyway, Mullins’ RngR this year is 0.5, calling back to how easily he glides from gap to gap in the outfield.
The last piece of this equation is ErrR (error runs), which is 0.1 for Mullins in 2020. ErrR is basically just what it sounds like, the number of errors charged to a fielder in relation to an average fielder at the same position with the same defensive chances.
Now if you look at Mullins’ numbers in this department the past couple years, he had a UZR of -0.5 in 2019 and -6.5 in 2018, which makes his UZR this year that much more impressive. We know where he came from and have been witness to his improvement. It also illustrates his ability to overcome adversity.
Way back on August 10th, 2018, Cedric Mullins got the call to the major leagues for the first time. He received steady playing time through the end of that season, appearing in 45 games while accumulating 191 plate appearances.
In 18 games in August 2018, Mullins was on fire, slashing .317/.386/.556 at the plate. But his bat got cold in September/October, when his triple slash was only .187/.269/.243 across 27 games. Put those two plus months together and he ended with a batting line of .235/.312/.359. Not exactly how you’d want to end your rookie season debut.
He got another chance the following spring, when he broke camp with the O’s and started 2019 in the bigs. It did not go well. He only had six hits in his first 64 at-bats, which came out to a .094 batting average. On April 22nd he was optioned to Triple-A, and he got knocked down another rung on the organizational ladder to Double-A in July of that year. No doubt that was a tough pill to swallow for a once highly-touted prospect.
Flash forward to the 2020 season, and it was Mullins who got the call on July 23rd after Hays’ placement on the injured list. This time he has not disappointed.
Mullins has taken pitches at the plate, showing a keen batting eye and enough awareness for manager Brandon Hyde to give him a run in the leadoff spot. Yes, it has also been out of necessity because of the injuries the team has faced recently, but Mullins is holding his own. He doesn’t give up at-bats.
Also, the dude can bunt. Just when you think baseball has changed permanently to a game of strikeouts and long balls, along comes Cedric Mullins, with his front footstep fake out, quick hands, and ability to catch the ball with his bat and place it anywhere he wants.
For these reasons and more, Cedric Mullins is the kind of player that makes watching a rebuild more bearable.