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Cedric Mullins has evolved into the ideal leadoff hitter

The Orioles center fielder is showing increased plate discipline and on-base numbers this year, making him the perfect tone-setter for an improved O’s offense.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Chicago White Sox David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles came into this past weekend’s series with Chicago soaring offensively. Averaging just under six runs a game, the O’s were sending a message that this is a different offense than the one who finished 20th in runs scored last season.

And yet, leading up to the first pitch on the south side Friday, it felt like there was somewhat of a hole at the top of the order. On the surface, Cedric Mullins—the Orioles’ long-time tone-setter atop the lineup—was scuffling a bit. In the 10 games before arriving in Chicago, Mullins was hitting a measly .111 with no HRs, only one extra-base hit and nine Ks. The center fielder’s start to the season was so inauspicious that in one game of the Oakland series he was moved down to the nine spot in the lineup.

To say Mullins silenced some doubters in Chi-Town would be an understatement. Over the three games, Cedric the Entertainer put on a show, going 6-11 with a double, a triple, six RBIs and six walks. Mullins came into the Windy City with a paltry .184 average and left batting .250.

However, a stat more impressive than the outfielder’s batting average is his on-base percentage. After getting on base 12 times in three games, Mullins raised his OBP to a strong .375. Coming into this season, the criticism often leveled at players like Mullins and Jorge Mateo was for their relatively low on-base numbers—especially given their roles in the lineup. While taking the gold and silver for the AL’s stolen base race was nice, it was hard to look at Mullins’ barely above-average OBP (and Mateo’s well below-average OBP) and not end up wanting more from them.

That’s why the show he put on in Chicago was not only impressive but speaks to the improvement from Mullins throughout the early season. Mullins—like much of the Orioles lineup—has shown increased patience at the plate this season. In 2022, the O’s ranked 24th in the majors with an average of 3.84 pitches per plate appearance. Currently, they lead the majors in pitches per plate appearance with a rate of 4.11.

This new patient approach is best exemplified by the change in how Mullins approaches his ABs. Last year, among 131 qualified hitters, the Orioles CF ranked 108th in pitches/PA, seeing an average of only 3.67 offerings every time he came to the plate. This season, Mullins has bumped that number all the way up to 4.08—a rate that would have placed him in the top 30 most patient hitters last year.

Even more impressive is the way that Mullins is approaching all of those pitches. In his first two full seasons as a starter, Mullins profiled as a free swinger who was willing to chase pitches and didn’t take too many walks. Even during his Silver Slugger-winning season, Mullins’ walk and chase rates ranked in the 47th and 49th percentiles, respectively. Last year, those numbers dipped to the 36th and 45th percentiles—highlighting how Mullins seemed to become more aggressive as he struggled to rediscover his 2021 form.

In 2023, Mullins has become almost an unrecognizably patient hitter. His walk and chase rates both currently sit in the 90th percentile. Last year, Mullins struggled to lay off fastballs and breaking balls out of the zone. This year, Mullins has started this season by cutting down his chase rate on breaking balls by nearly 15%. On fastballs, his chase rate is down by almost 10%.

When Mullins swings, he’s also making the most consistent hard contact of his career. A big part of that jump comes from his better results against breaking balls. After posting a hard-hit percentage at just under 30% last season, that number is up to 47.4% this season against sliders and curves. That increase sees the usually soft-hitting Mullins (whose hard-hit% has been in the 30-something percentiles) putting up league-average hard-hit numbers for the first time in his career.

And yes, 16 games is hardly a large enough sample size to fully buy into these numbers from Mullins. However, if this plate discipline can continue to translate into impressive on-base numbers, Mullins becomes the embodiment of the ideal leadoff hitter.

When you look at the Orioles’ lineup, and see that their best player is normally hitting in the two hole, the importance of an excellent leadoff hitter becomes magnified. Despite his current pace, Adley Rutschman will likely always be closer to a 30 home run player than a 40+ home player. So consistently having someone in front of Adley that he can drive in becomes paramount. With Mullins’ plus base-stealing ability, it’s easy to imagine a .350+ OBP translating into a 40+ SB, 100+ runs season for Cedric.

While the likelihood that we see Mullins put up another 30/30 season feels low, it’s still possible that we’ve yet to see the best of the Orioles’ center fielder. We’ve seen plenty of great leadoff hitters in the Camden Yards era. From the power/speed combo of Brady Anderson to the stolen base wizardry of Brian Roberts to the incredible offensive consistency of Nick Markakis, each prominent leadoff hitter has offered something different.

Mullins has the ability to combine the best of all of those players in one—but his ability to get on base consistently has held him back. If these first 16 games are a sign of things to come, perhaps 2023 is the year where Cedric Mullins becomes the leadoff hitter we all know he can be.


What will Cedric Mullins’ on-base percentage be at the end of the season?

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