What comes next after a surprising work of greatness? For Cedric Mullins, this was the big question heading into the 2022 season. His 2021 campaign for the Orioles with the first 30 home run/30 stolen base combo in team history put him among the top players in the league. If he could follow up on that with more greatness, it would look like a breakout. If not, then the 2021 performance would be more like a flash in a pan.
By the end of April, the dream of repeating the 30/30 season was clearly dead. Mullins hit only two home runs that month and added just three more in May. When June rolled around, Mullins was batting a sad-looking .236/.297/.365. Even if you didn’t expect him to repeat the 30/30 feat, this was disappointing. Mullins was getting fewer hits, drawing fewer walks, and hitting for much less power. He was, at least, still stealing bases, with 11 stolen in 13 attempts at this point in the season.
Like the rest of the Orioles, things improved for Mullins as the season went along. His season closed out with a .258/.318/.403 batting line. That’s not the “this guy’s one of the better hitters in MLB” territory like from 2021, but it is fine. By the park/league-adjusted OPS+ stat, Mullins landed at a 104, or 4% better than league average.
Compare him to all other center fielders and he looks even better. MLB CFs combined for a .688 OPS this year. That was the worst-hitting position other than catcher. If you have a center fielder who’s hitting slightly above the average MLB hitter, you’re doing pretty well. Add to this that Mullins was playing near-Gold Glove-level defense and continuing to do well at stealing bases and even without the 30/30 repeat, it’s a strong season, if not one that will land him in the top 10 of the MVP voting like last year.
In both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs WAR, Mullins was the second-most valuable Oriole behind Adley Rutschman. Compared to all other MLB center fielders who played at least half their games at the position, Mullins had the fourth-highest fWAR. There aren’t many other teams who wouldn’t want him instead of their own center fielder, and even the ones who wouldn’t could slot him into the outfield somewhere.
At least, that’s assuming that Mullins is able to continue his current level of production for another few years. This may not be a given. When it comes to his batted ball quality-based data, Mullins’s hitting performance greatly outpaced the “expected” numbers. That’s the reverse of what happened to teammate Ryan Mountcastle, whose x-stats were in the top 15-20% of the league even though his actual batting numbers were pedestrian for a first baseman. Mullins, on the other hand, had a whole lot of blue in his Statcast panel:
A year ago, Mullins was in the 65th percentile for xwOBA, 77th for xBA, and 61st for xSLG. Those are big drops. If you’re wondering, the 24th percentile xBA is .232 and 18th percentile xSLG is .349. We would look at Mullins’s season a lot differently if he batted and slugged those numbers. Last year’s xBA was .272 and xSLG was .447. It is certainly worth keeping in mind that Mullins overperformed the x-stats even in his great 2021 season, so he’s got two years of a track record in doing that.
In terms of the 2022 results, what happened is what happened, and none of this x-stuff matters for looking at that. When looking ahead to what to count on when assembling the team for next year, there may be some further issues if Mullins doesn’t have a bounce-back in his ability to get the barrel on the ball and hit it hard.
This shows up outside of just the x-stats. For instance, Mullins’s percentage of batted balls where his swing was under the pitch increased by almost 20%. Going along with this, the frequency with which he had an at-bat end in a pop-up increased by more than 50%. It’s hard to make good things happen when you’re popping the ball up. That’s about as harmless as a batted ball gets.
Against that backdrop, it’s not surprising to see that Mullins’s numbers fell off against both right- and left-handed pitchers this year. A key part of his 2021 success story is that in his first year where he ditched switch-hitting and batted exclusively left-handed, he held his own against lefty pitchers, batting to a .788 OPS. This year, his numbers against right-handed pitchers didn’t even exceed that - a .782 OPS, and much worse against lefties at .579. Whatever was going on, it hurt him against both sets of pitchers.
Mullins heads into his first year of arbitration eligibility for the 2023 season. His projected salary, per MLB Trade Rumors, is $4.4 million. For a player fresh off a 3+ WAR season and 8+ WAR over the last two seasons, that’s nothing. He isn’t set to become a free agent until after the 2025 season. Now that the Orioles have shown a quality season in 2022, with more prospects on the way and the financial resources to sign starting pitchers, there’s no reason to talk about trading guys like Mullins to bank future assets...
...unless the Orioles are really, really convinced that Mullins’s x-stats from this year mark him for a big decline next year and it’s time to sell high. Mike Elias has had a good instinct for this in trading away from the big league roster up to this point in his tenure, though none of these trades, including this year’s deadline moves of Trey Mancini and Jorge López, have been popular when they were made. It could be more palatable if Mullins was part of a package to land established big league talent, especially a starting pitcher.
In the past couple of years, the Orioles have shown the ability to help players with the talent and willingness to improve themselves make the necessary adjustments. One reason they surprised people in 2022 was guys who’d been written off taking big steps forward. That was Mullins last year, and players like Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo this year.
With that in mind, I’m not really worried about the x-stats because I think the Orioles have a good chance to have Mullins turn in a season at least as good as his 2022 campaign. They’ll need that next year if the season is going to go even better than this one did. If anyone is traded, I hope it’s not Mullins. The room for improvement in the Orioles outfield is at the corners, not in center field. We’ll see what Elias thinks with the moves he makes over the next three months.
Previous 2022 Orioles player reviews: Bruce Zimmermann, Robinson Chirinos, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Nick Vespi/Logan Gillaspie, Spenser Watkins, Rougned Odor, Ryan McKenna, Kyle Bradish, Austin Hays, Keegan Akin, Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander, Jordan Lyles, Bryan Baker, Tyler Wells, Austin Voth, Jorge Mateo, Dean Kremer, Cionel Pérez
Tomorrow: Ramón Urías