To be quite honest, I thought Cedric Mullins’ time in the big leagues had already expired.
Mullins broke camp with the Orioles in 2019 after an encouraging end to the previous season, but his 74 plate appearances that April kickstarted a downward spiral. The North Carolinian posted an astoundingly-dreadful -10 wRC+, the result of a .094/.181/.156 slash. He had only six hits in 22 games.
Mullins’ exit velocity numbers also dwelled in the cellar as the game suddenly looked far too fast and far too overwhelming. He was sent down to Triple-A on April 22, 2019, though the game of baseball was not yet done with its torment. Mullins proceeded with a .578 OPS and 46 wRC+ at Norfolk, as his relegation furthered to Bowie in early July. As a fan watching on TV, it just seemed like he was behind every fastball, flailing at every thing with breaking ball spin, and he looked completely out of place.
At that point in time it seemed like Mullins was on the outs. The Orioles have continued to make their prospect system more interesting in a lot of places, and if there was any depth at any position, most folks would say the outfield. I thought that as fast as Mullins had made his presence known that he would drift away.
But he didn’t. Rather, he’s probably the coolest story in baseball right now.
Literally as I got to this point in writing the article itself on Monday night, Mullins smoked the go-ahead home run against the Mariners to give him a quick five on the season. He currently owns a 158 wRC+, one of the top-30 figures in all of baseball, while nearly all of his numbers reside at the peak of their respective leaderboards.
To be stuck in such a prolonged offensive slump, to see same-sided pitching for the first time in years, and to now be among the productive hitters in baseball is not where I thought Mullins’ career arc was headed. And to that point, there’s plenty of credit to spread around.
Mullins has spoken in the past regarding the his 2019-20 winter regimen with Rick Strickland in St. Louis, and I’d have to imagine the Orioles had some say in that offseason process. Those processes surely worked, because Mullins had a long way to go.
This is a pretty gross 0-2 curveball so the swing is somewhat excused, but you do get a good look at what Mullins’ setup at the plate looked like as he was free falling to rock bottom. Below are pre-pitch and mid-swing snapshots of Mullins just before he was sent down to Triple-A in 2019.
Two years ago, Mullins stood at the plate with hands perpendicular to his shoulders, and was somewhat squatted in his stance. His lead leg sort of drifted up and out. More importantly however, to the right you can see what Mullins looked like in the triggering of his swing. Mullins’ natural actions have always been inward, then outward, as he torques his front side before using that momentum to attack the baseball.
The problem with his pre-2020 swing was that his path to the baseball required a lot of moving parts to eventually sync up. Some guys like Javy Baez are capable of succeeding in that unique way, but everyone is different. Mullins’ actions aren’t nearly as dramatic as El Mago’s but clearly there was too much happening within his swing and it needed to be addressed.
I’m a little upset I didn’t notice it before, but Mullins’ refinements were evident in 2020. The way he stands in the box and how he’s more direct to the baseball showed itself throughout the pandemic-shortened season. The favor of time, having been given enough of it for these changes to sink in, is the cause of what we’re seeing now.
The current owner of a .916 OPS, Mullins and his hands are now much taller in his stance. The leg kick he’s added also makes him much sturdier and generates more kinetic energy towards home plate. Adding height to his stance has made him more balanced in the initiation of his swing as well. These changes have combined to create a more compact and confident hitter.
Big muscles help, but that’s not where power comes from. Hitting a baseball hard is usually an effect of bat speed and being strong and balanced at the point of contact. It took two demotions and a pandemic, but this is not the same Mullins we saw in 2019, or even in 2018 when he was the most interesting Orioles player on the field.
The left is Mullins in his second-to-last game before his demotion, and even in that screenshot his swing looks weak. Granted the pitch is away, but his arms are long and so is his barrel. He’s so off-kilter that his front foot isn’t even underneath him. No balance, no strength, no chance.
That home run he hit off of Jameson Taillon was the moment I noticed something had changed. It’s such a notably cleaner, more on-time swing. According to Baseball Savant, Mullins’ average exit velocity from 2018-20 was only 84 mph, but that number has jumped up to 88.6 mph in 2021. That’s not an elite number by any means, but for Mullins that’s a gain of four and a half miles per hour. That’s a lot!
Mullins came into a 2021 with a career fWAR of -0.4. That number is now 1.1. His 1.5 fWAR this season is seventh-best in all of baseball. While there is plenty of reason to believe he’ll at least slow down some, this version of Cedric Mullins is what everyone dreamt when he debuted three years ago. Who doesn’t love a contact-heavy speedster with some pop?
He isn’t leaving the Orioles lineup anytime soon, and he’s earned that right. Unlike before, I look forward to his at-bats. He’s now set the expectation that he’ll offer a confident swing as often as possible. Mullins becomes yet another example of a player that has made a drastic jump under this new front office.
Like a lot of folks throughout his life I’m sure, I wrote him off too early.