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The Orioles found an All-Star out of nowhere in Cedric Mullins

Nobody could predict Mullins’ monster breakout in 2021, but we were lucky enough to witness it.

MLB: OCT 01 Orioles at Blue Jays Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you put money last spring on Cedric Mullins busting out in 2021 to become not just the Orioles’ best player by a landslide, but also an All-Star starter and Baltimore’s first member of the 30-30 club, well, good on you, I say.

Mullins came into spring training a .225 career hitter in 115 MLB games with dismaying splits: .251/.305/.394 as a lefty and .147/.250/.189 righty. His minor league numbers were not all that much better: a .291 average with 23 home runs as a lefty and .204 average with just six homers as a righty. He’d never hit more than 14 home runs in a season, and that was back in 2016 at Delmarva.

With those splits, it’s no wonder Mullins finally took to heart then-manager Buck Showalter’s 2018 advice this offseason and dropped switch-hitting. What is a wonder is how much better a hitter that change allowed Mullins to become from the left side.

If it’d been just the power that came through for Mullins in 2021, he would have resembled others who play his position like the Cubs’ Ian Happ (.228 AVG, 25 HR, 1.3 WAR) or Toronto’s Randal Grichuk (.241 AVG, 22 HR, 0.4 WAR). Mullins’ 5.3 offensive WAR obliterates these. So does his .291 average with 30 home runs, 30 stolen bases, .878 OPS, and 312 total bases. Mullins’ value to his team was the 21st highest of any MLB player (and 15th among position players). (Look at the company Mullins is keeping! No seriously: look.)

Mullins’ 2021 season ranks as one of the greatest by an Orioles centerfielder ever, and with all due respect for Birdland hero Adam Jones, the greatest since Brady Anderson smacked 50 home runs with a .297 average and 369 total bases in 1996.

Now the question many are wondering is, will Mullins’ season share another commonality with Brady’s: the impossibility of repeating it?

Here’s the glass half-empty case. One, Mullins’ expected average and slugging this season (.269 and .440, respectively) were lower than his actual numbers, suggesting a bit of good luck. Two, he slumped in the second half, slashing just .261/.333/.489 (compared to .314/.380/.541 in the first).

But here is the glass half-full side. First, unlike Brady Anderson’s head-exploding 1996, Mullins’ offensive explosion followed significant changes at the plate: dropping switch-hitting, which cleaned up his swing and his timing, plus a data-driven increased launch angle. Obviously, where you can point to technique driving results, the chance for repetition is greater.

Second, unlike the typical slugger, Mullins showed an encouragingly balanced attack. He hit for contact, leading the game in hits prior to the All-Star Break before finishing the season fourth in the AL, with 175. He hit for power, with the eighth-best OPS in the AL (.878) and 13th-best slugging (.518). (By the way, that list includes a lot of 1B/DH types, not to mention guys like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton built like NFL tight ends, which puts the 5’8, 175-lb. centerfielder’s accomplishment in perspective.) He can hit all pitches, with a .297 average against fastballs, .284 on breaking balls, and .282 on offspeed (a huge improvement over a .182 average against offspeed pitches in 2020.) He doesn’t chase much and he whiffs even less, with a whiff percentage in the bottom 25%.

Third and finally, Mullins should get better pitches to hit next season. An area where he still has room for improvement is bases on balls: his 59 walks on the season pale in comparison to what big thumpers like NYY’s Joey Gallo (111), Detroit’s Robbie Grossman (98) or Oakland’s Matt Olson (86) achieved. It’s easier to walk when you’ve carved out a fearsome reputation for yourself like those guys have. But now Mullins has. And if that bumps up his OBP further, well, it’ll be a fearsome five-feet-eight-inches of pure slugger staring back at pitchers next season.

The takehome point about repeatability is this: Mullins may not lead the AL in average next season, but the floor he showed in 2021 is still excellent. Plus, with his multiple offensive tools, his work ethic, and his confidence, he has the ability to pull himself out of slumps, as CC’s Drew Bonifant pointed out. On May 21, Mullins’ average dropped to .292 after being at .313 days earlier; he bounced back with a .417 stretch over his next 60 at-bats. His average dipped below .300 on Sept. 15; the following two weeks he hit .303. And if all else fails, with foot speed in the 88th percentile, he can bunt to get aboard: he did that 10 times in 2021.

Now, about the defense. We know he doesn’t have the greatest arm, but a negative dWAR from Fangraphs? Advanced metrics’ hatred for his defense is extremely puzzling considering a) that Mullins is not error-prone (a .985 fielding percentage, which is fine), b) that his 11 Outs Above Average rank in the 96th percentile of fielders, and c) some of the highlight-reel catches he produced this season. On April 8, Mullins saved Matt Harvey’s tail by covering like 200 feet in a full sprint. On June 9, he went full Superman to rob Jonathan Villar of extra bases. On September 15, he scaled the centerfield wall to rob Gary Sánchez of a home run in one of the greatest catches of the season. So I genuinely wonder if maybe there’s a sample size problem? Stay tuned on this question next season.

Mullins delivered Orioles fans plenty of other highlight moments this season. In July, he started as the AL’s center fielder in the All-Star Game and scored a run en route to an AL victory. He was unanimously voted Most Valuable Oriole in September and was named a finalist for the Hank Aaron award, for the MLB Players Association’s Comeback Player of the Year Award, and for the Silver Slugger award, an award he definitely deserves to win when winners are announced on Nov. 11th.

And of course, there was this special moment when he made history as Baltimore’s first player to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season. If you have 15 minutes, here’s a reel of all of them.

Remember how, back in spring training, the Orioles were considering platooning Mullins with Hays in center field or trading him? “Think about that,” says Joe Trezza. “A team that was basically built to rebuild wasn’t sure [Cedric Mullins] could stick on their Opening Day roster.”

What Mullins will do next season for an encore is far from clear. What is clear is that he deserves all the credit imaginable for his complete transformation as a hitter. Mullins was an absolute gift to his team in 2021 and to Orioles fans starved for competent baseball in general. There are many in Birdland who believe, not without reason, that “We can’t have nice things.” There is a proper two-word response for observations like this, and it is: Cedric Mullins.

Previous 2021 Orioles player reviews: Valaika/Gutierrez/Mateo, Paul Fry/César Valdez, Watkins/Greene/etc., Ramón Urias, Dean Kremer, Tanner Scott, DJ Stewart, Tyler Wells, Anthony Santander, Cole Sulser, Bruce Zimmermann, Austin Hays, Severino/Wynns, Dillon Tate, Keegan Akin, Ryan Mountcastle, Matt Harvey, Trey Mancini, John Means