Ty Wigginton’s name is chiseled in the stone of Orioles history due to his All-Star selection in 2010. He was the team’s lone representative at that season’s Midsummer Classic despite boasting a meager .768 OPS at the unofficial halfway point. His trip to Anaheim that year was a byproduct of MLB’s rule that every team sends a player to the All-Star Game, no matter how poor the options may be. Wigginton would finish the season as the Orioles’ 11th-most valuable player (1.1 bWAR). Not exactly All Star quality.
Brandon Hyde’s 2021 Orioles might finish with a worse record than the 66-96 mark that Dave Trembley’s squad put together in 2010, but they shouldn’t encounter similar trouble when it comes to finding a worthy player to send out to Denver next month.
John Means has pitched at a Cy Young-level for the season’s first two months, although a recent IL stint could prevent him from a second All-Star nod. Trey Mancini has triumphantly returned from a cancer diagnosis to become a force in the middle of the Baltimore lineup, but first base is a deep position in the American League and could prove tough to break through. And then there is Cedric Mullins.
The Orioles’ center fielder may have had the hottest start of anyone in the league. Through April 11, Mullins was hitting .459 with a .512 on-base percentage, and a .676 slugging percentage. What made it even more impressive was how poor the rest of the offense performed around him. Despite almost no support, Mullins was raking.
Then came May, and as Mullins’ form at the plate dipped, the Orioles’ record shortly followed. He hit just .255/.336/.396 on the month and saw his season batting average decrease by 42 points from where it was at the end of April. His overall numbers were still lovely, but less spectacular than they had previously been.
And as if a switch had been flipped right along with the calendar on June 1, Mullins is back to his slugging ways. Through five games this month, he is 12-for-20 with a double, a triple, three home runs, four RBI, seven runs, four walks, and zero strikeouts. Extend the timeline to the final two games of May, and it gets even better.
By the way, he has done all of this after ditching his right-handed swing this off-season in favor of hitting from the left side full-time. The former switch hitter had famously had issues hitting southpaws early in his career, so much so that prior to this summer it seemed his ceiling was that of a platoon bat at best. So far in 2021, he boasts a .306 batting average and .833 OPS against left-handed pitching. That will work.
Regardless of how he’s going at the plate, though, Mullins has provided tremendous defense in center field through the season’s first two months. Plays like the sliding grab on the warning track against Nelson Cruz last week have become almost commonplace. His first step, instincts, and speed are all top tier.
It’s not just the eye test that he passes. The numbers bear it out as well. According to Baseball Savant, Mullins ranks in the 98% percentile in terms of outs above average. That’s pretty great! The six outs above average he has recorded this year are tied for second among all major league outfielders, behind only Manuel Margot (nine) and tied with Brett Phillips, both of the Rays.
On top of all of that, Mullins has been a net positive on the bases. His nine stolen bases are tied for ninth in MLB, although he has also been thrown out trying to steal on four occasions, giving him a 69% percent success rate. Of course, good baserunning is about more than stolen bases. It requires awareness, forward thinking, and just the right amount of aggressiveness. Mullins has all of those things in spades, which helps him to do things like hit a triple on a pop-up, as he did against the Red Sox last month.
But before you think that Mullins is simply a bright spot on a bad Orioles team, step back and look at where Mullins sits in relation to the rest of the league. His 2.8 fWAR is the best among MLB center fielders. Second and third place belong to Byron Buxton and Mike Trout, respectively. But it gets better. That same 2.8 fWAR is tied for third among all position players in MLB. One player he’s tied with? Ronald Acuna Jr.
What Mullins is doing would be impressive for any player, let alone one with his back story. He was a 13th-round draft pick out of Campbell University, far from a baseball powerhouse. His impressive combination of tools quickly made him into a real prospect, propelling him to the big leagues in mid-2018.
Mullins opened 2019 as the Orioles’ starting center fielder, but quickly cratered to hit just .094 in 22 games before being shipped all the way down to Double-A Bowie. After clawing his way back to the bigs, he was able to do enough to snatch the center field job from former Top 100 prospect Austin Hays last year, and he is now producing like one of the best players in baseball.
That’s not hyperbole. As laid out earlier, Mullins’ statistics place him alongside some of the biggest names in the sport. So, yes, the recent All-Star buzz is warranted. In fact, there is an easy argument to be made that he should be the American League’s starting center fielder in the contest.
But his play to this point deserves an even higher level of praise than that of a potential All-Star. Mullins is producing like someone who could have a shot at a few year-end awards. He may not win them, but it is within the realm of possibility that the Orioles leadoff hitter could be considered for a Gold Glove in the outfield, maybe a Silver Slugger, and even receive some down-ballot MVP votes.
Sure, it is a tad premature to think about honors that won’t be handed out for several months, but if the league can give out awards after a 60-game season, like they did in 2020, then an Orioles blog can get all hyped about a truly wonderful 59-game stretch from their center fielder.