There were moments this past season when Cedric Mullins looked a lot like the 2021 version of himself that won a Silver Slugger and started the All-Star Game. The difference this time around was a nagging groin injury that required two IL stints and seemingly sapped his power and speed for the final two-thirds of the season.
The high point of Mullins’ season came on May 12, when he hit for the cycle against the Pittsburgh Pirates in dramatic fashion. His home run didn’t come until bottom of the eighth inning, and it was an Earl Weaver special that proved to be the difference in a 6-3 win for the O’s.
That cycle came as part of a red hot start to the summer for Mullins. From Opening Day through May 29 (53 games), he owned a .263/.356/.479 batting line with eight home runs, 12 doubles, three triples, and 13 stolen bases. Then came his first stay on the injured list.
While trying to beat out a ground ball against the Guardians on May 29, Mullins pulled up short of first base. It was deemed a strain of his right abductor/groin, an injury that typically requires a minimum of four weeks to heal.
Well, either Mullins is particularly quick to mend, or he rushed back too soon, but just 25 days later the centerfielder was right back in the Orioles’ lineup. His return would be short-lived and rather tough to watch. He appeared in 16 games from late June through mid July, but slugged just .368 in that time with one home run and went 1-for-2 on stolen base attempts. However, he had started to heat up at the very end, going 6-for-10 in his final three games on that run.
On July 15 he had to exit another game after experiencing what was called “quad tightness” while running out a ball. He wouldn’t appear in the Orioles next couple of games, and then it was announced that he would be headed back to the IL with the same “right addbuctor/groin strain” he had experienced earlier in the season.
The injury cost Mullins another month on the sidelines, and the struggles he’d had at the plate prior to hitting the IL for a second time also forced him out of the lead-off spot in Brandon Hyde’s lineup, supplanted by Gunnar Henderson at the time. From July 1 onward, Mullins was most often hitting sixth or below.
Mullins was back with the Orioles on August 11, but he struggled mightily at the plate in the season’s final month-and-a-half. Between his return and the end of the season, the O’s centerfielder slashed .190/.232/.353. He managed to smack six home runs and steal five bases in those 47 games, but he also struck out 43 times and worked only eight walks.
It didn’t get any better in the postseason as Mullins went 0-for-12 with three strikeouts in the team’s ALDS sweep at the hands of the Texas Rangers.
In many ways, Mullins’ work at the plate in 2023 was not entirely dissimilar to what he did in 2022. He actually found his barrel more often, hit the ball slightly harder, and walked at the highest clip of his entire career (9.5%). But what sunk him was an elevated strikeout rate (22.2%) and some poor batted ball luck (.271 BABIP), which was exacerbated by the most extreme launch angle (21.6 degrees) of his time in the bigs.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Mullins continues to be a capable big league hitter. Had he been able to stay healthy all season, it’s possible his overall numbers would have better reflected that reality. Unfortunately, the injuries did happen, and it’s not as though that sort of thing gets less likely with age. The Orioles will need to be mindful of that moving forward.
Something else to keep track of is Mullins’ foot speed. He remained an above-average runner in 2023, although he also posted the worst average sprint speed of his career at 28 feet per second. He has seen his sprint speed decrease slightly each year he has spent in MLB. This is a common occurrence, and it doesn’t always mean the end is near. But Mullins is a player that relies on his wheels quite a bit. Will the savviness he has gained as an experienced big league be a worthy makeweight for the downward trend in his physical skills?
Mullins managed to remain a force on the bases this past season. He went 19-for-22 on stolen base attempts this season, and FanGraphs attributed him with 3.3 BsR, identical to what he posted in 2022 when he swiped 34 bags. But he certainly got less risky as the season wore on. He was a perfect 11-for-11 in April, but then just 8-for-11 the rest of the season.
It was another nice year in the field for Mullins despite the injuries. He won MLB’s “Play of the Week” twice. First for stealing a home run from Ty France in August against the Mariners. And then in September for snagging an extra base hit away from Taylor Walls in a pivotal series against the Rays. Opponents did continue to run on his arm, but that was more than palatable given how much range he provided in center. Had he been able to stay healthy it is likely he would have been a Gold Glove finalist once again.
In all likelihood, Mullins is never going to be the offensive force he was a few seasons ago. But these Orioles don’t need him to be. His stellar outfield defense is enough to keep him in the lineup provided his work at the plate remains passable, and he can stay on the field more often.
Will he be on the 2024 Orioles? Barring a blockbuster trade, he absolutely should be. He’s a Gold Glove caliber defender with two years of control remaining and a reasonable raise coming in arbitration. Although the Orioles outfield is likely to get crowded very soon, Mullins feels like the incumbent that’s the toughest to replace.
2023 player reviews: Ryan McKenna, Jacob Webb, Austin Voth/Keegan Akin, Adam Frazier, Jack Flaherty, Shintaro Fujinami, Aaron Hicks, Bryan Baker, Jorge Mateo, Kyle Gibson, John Means, DL Hall, Jordan Westburg, James McCann, Ryan O’Hearn, Mike Baumann, Ramón Urías, Cole Irvin, Ryan Mountcastle, Danny Coulombe, Tyler Wells, Cionel Pérez, Austin Hays, Yennier Cano, Dean Kremer
Tomorrow: Anthony Santander