I know, I know:
- “He’s hitting .200.”
- “He’s whiffed 10 times in his first 25 AB.”
- “Don’t write this! You’re going to jinx him!” (I mean, he is hitting .200 right now…)
- “We’re Orioles fans. We can’t have nice things.”
With the team rebuild, let’s tactfully say, still underway, Orioles fans can’t expect much in 2022 by way of wins or playoff appearances. But prospect debuts and continued excellence from 2021 breakouts like Ryan Mountcastle, John Means (fingers crossed for that forearm), and Cedric Mullins—that much can’t be too much to ask, right?
You don’t need the reminder, but Cedric Mullins’ 2021 offensive numbers were really good: a .291 BA, .360 OBP, .878 OPS, 5.7 WAR, and 30 HR and 30 SB, the first Oriole ever to hit that landmark. He was named the AL Silver Slugger at center field and scooped up Most Valuable Oriole honors easily.
A couple of weeks ago, I checked the 2022 preseason projections for Cedric Mullins. They weren’t encouraging. PECOTA predicted a significant regression from last season for him, leaving just a good-to-average player: an expected .250 BA and 17 HR, good for 2.2 WAR. Fangraphs echoed those predictions, putting Mullins at .257 BA, 25 HR, for 3.0 WAR. Dan Szymborski’s projections were similar: .265 BA, 24 HR, 3.6 WAR.
Far be it for me to question the experts, but … let’s do just that. I understand the “regression to the mean” argument. Especially for a guy who averaged .094 in 22 games in 2019 and whose biggest offensive achievement in 2020 was leading the league in sac bunts. But most hitters don’t completely retool their hitting approach from one season to the next, shaking off switch-hitting and remaking their stance.
Mullins did before 2021, and the difference was obvious. Most hitters’ stats get worse from the minors to the majors: in 2021, Mullins not only surpassed his best minors season but also had his best offensive year since he OPS’d .935 in 2015 for the Campbell Fighting Camels. That’s very rare. (Not OPS’ing .935 for Campbell…)
The other thing about the “regression” thesis is that it seems to assume that, as pitchers pitch Mullins differently, he’ll fold. Brandon Hyde has suggested Mullins is being pitched differently in 2022. Usually, being “pitched differently” entails a lot of breaking balls and fewer fastballs, the way Ryan Mountcastle got after a hot start in 2020.
For Mullins, though, the pitch mix numbers don’t bear this out. What we see, instead, is this. Last April and May, Mullins saw about 64% fastballs (FB) and 24% breaking balls (BB). He mashed both pitches. So pitchers adjusted: in June 2021, he saw 54% FB and 29.3% BB. The thing is, though, June was Mullins’ best month of the year: he OPS’d 1.125 and hit .423 against breaking balls, defeating the point of throwing him so many. Each month after that, the FB ratio crept up again, to 60.5% FB and 23.8% BB by the end of the year, pretty close to what he saw in April and May. Why throw a guy a lot of breaking and offspeed stuff if he’s hitting all of it?
So far, in 2022, the FB/BB ratio is even higher than he saw in 2021: 68% FB, 25% BB, 6.9% offspeed. Could that be because pitchers are still warming up their arms? Maybe. I think it’s also that Mullins established himself against breaking balls to a good extent.
Where there does seem to be an ongoing adjustment by pitchers is in where they’re pitching Mullins. If there’s a weakness in Mullins’ offensive approach it’s covering the up-and-in pitch. Here are the total # of pitches per zone Mullins saw in 2021 and his expected average by zone for the season.
Seems like an easy one to exploit. Lo and behold, here are those totals for 2022.
In 2021, Mullins saw pitches up in the zone at a ratio of about 2:1 outside to inside. In 2022, the ratio is flipped: up in the zone, he’s gotten twice as inside pitches as outside. They’re also throwing him breaking balls down-and-outside. He hasn’t been weak there, but I guess diving sliders are tempting, no matter who you are.
This is why what Mullins has done so far in a small sample size is impressive. Yep, he’s only 5-for-25 with one walk. But he’s racking up hits in tough at-bats, under pressure, and against tough pitchers targeting weaknesses in his swing.
On April 11, with two outs and the bases loaded, Milwaukee starter Adrian Houser tossed Mullins a slider low-and-away. Check: Houser has seen Mullins’ heat zone chart. Mullins got the bat head down and drove the pitch into center-right to plate two runs.
On April 12, Milwaukee lefty Eric Lauer tried to sneak a curveball by Mullins and failed miserably. It’s hard to tell from the video where catcher Omar Narváez was setting up, but either way, a two-out grand slam off a lefty curveball in Mullins’ cold zone: that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Maybe his most impressive hit so far on the year, also on April 12, was his ninth-inning double off Josh Hader, one of the best lefty relievers in the game. Not only was this a high leverage situation, but Hader also hit 97 mph up and inside against the lefty Mullins. Suffice it to say, Mullins got his hands around fast.
So far on the season, it feels like no one on the Orioles is driving in runs but Mullins. You’re not wrong there: the Orioles are 5-for-55 with RISP, while Cedric Mullins, in high-leverage situations, is hitting .600. It’s been enormously frustrating to watch, but it’s too soon to despair about Orioles batters just yet, and definitely too soon to despair about Cedric Mullins. Keep your eyes on the up-and-inside fastball, which is going to be the place pitchers attack him. If he can keep defending himself, though, he’ll do just fine at the plate this season.