A few months ago, ahead of the upcoming season, this blog ran a series of player previews. For Cedric Mullins, the consensus take was that, between his All-Star 2021 season and his average 2022, the true Mullins was the average one. Fangraphs and Baseball Reference had Mullins hitting somewhere between .250-.268 with 26-37 stolen bases and an OPS in the .724-.766 range.
One month into this season, Mullins isn’t exactly blowing away those predictions (except for SB: he’s on pace for 50). He’s hitting .248 and OPS’ing .780. But despite appearances, there are signs that not all is quite as predicted.
One, a cold start dragged down his offensive numbers, but he’s looked much better since. Compare the Mullins slashline between Mar. 30-April 14th (.192/.300/.327) with what he’s done in the month-or-so since (.288/.400/.488). Mullins is OPS’ing .888 in that stretch, which, for reference, would be approximately consistent with his All-Star 2021 season (.878 OPS).
Two, Mullins—like a lot of this team—is making great swing decisions. Last month, CC’s John Beers lauded Mullins for his improved plate discipline. To that, note the 112-point gap between his BA (.288) and OBP (.400) over the last 30 days. It’s the third-largest among Orioles regulars after Adley Rutschman, who simply isn’t normal, and Gunnar Henderson, whose contact rate isn’t yet matching his strike zone awareness.
For Mullins this is a big deal: before this season, Mullins never posted a walk rate above 8.9%, but it’s currently sitting at 13.8%. Meanwhile, Mullins’ chase rate ranks in the top 92nd percentile of hitters. Last season, Mullins struggled to lay off offspeed and breaking balls out of the zone, but this year, he’s cut down his chase rate on these pitches by 22% and 12%, respectively. Not hard contact, not exit velocity, not barrel percentage, but rather plate discipline is the single biggest change for Mullins at the dish in 2023.
Well, there’s one more thing. Before the season, it was widely agreed that one of the biggest holes in Mullins’ game was his inability to hit left-handers. This was true even early in his career when he was still a switch-hitter: his career average against them as a right-handed hitter is only .147. Recall that Mullins became a full-time lefty (partly at Buck Showalter’s instance) in 2021, just in time to explode at the plate: over the first half of the season he’d hit .314 with 16 home runs, 16 stolen bases, and a .921 OPS, get picked to the All-Star Game, and become the Orioles’ first 30/30 player in club history.
After his All-Star season, his 2022 wasn’t bad, but it felt like a disappointment: he slashed .248/.353/.426, and importantly, his splits against lefties tanked. Whereas 2021 Mullins posted .277/.299 lefty-righty splits, 2022 Mullins’ splits were a lopsided .209/.279.
Coming into this season, Mullins knew that closing that gap would be key to keeping his platooning days way back in the past. As Mullins told MASN’s Roch Kubatko in February, over the offseason he challenged himself to put in lots of work simulating at-bats against lefties: “Machine, angles, spin, stuff like that.”
So far, the results are promising, as you can see below. Clearly, Mullins has done his homework! Or wait, did he possibly do it too well?
To my knowledge, this season is the first time Mullins has ever hit lefties better than righties in his pro career. It’s a brave new world, people! That .949 OPS particularly stands out. Mullins is slamming left handers, and this means extra-base hits!! Here’s one:
Cedric Mullins extends the Orioles lead 3-1— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) May 6, 2023
Notice Mullins pulling the hands in to reach an inside fastball. This is exactly what he’s historically struggled most with, the up-and-inside pitch (here’s a discussion of last season’s heat zones).
Granted it’s early in the season, but it seems like the offseason exercises worked: Mullins is averaging .360 on lefty fastballs this season (vs. just .247 against them last year). (In case you were wondering, he’s seeing about the same FB velocity/spin rates in 2023.) In fact, against fastballs thrown by lefties, Mullins has seen improvements in average launch angle, barrel %, exit velocity, average, expected WOBA .... yadda yadda yadda, basically all the categories. No, but really, he’s quicker to the ball and hitting it hard and fast.
One more interesting asymmetry in Mullins’ splits: both righties and lefties are throwing him about 60% heaters, but while he’s tagging lefty heaters like never before, he’s struggling against right-handed fastballs to a shocking degree. Mullins is hitting .170 against them this year, even though he’s never averaged below .300 on fastballs thrown by righties since 2020. This is a weird anomaly. So another explanation for Mullins’ reverse splits: he’s underperforming against a favorite pitch.
Baseball is a cat-and-mouse game, so we can expect adjustments. This year, the plan may look different depending on the pitcher’s handedness. Lefties will stop throwing Mullins so many fastballs, because he’s showing he can crush them. Right-handers will keep feeding him heaters because he’s not hitting them—yet.
Thus far, Mullins is on pace for a 3+-WAR season, about on pace with his 2022 season, as the pundits predicted. Partly this is because his defensive metrics are down. Regardless, there’s reason for optimism about Cedric Mullins’ season: he’s steadily improving at the dish since April, he’s being unusually selective in his pitches, and his good offensive numbers are coming despite his struggling against right-handed pitching, which he usually feasts on.
So as good as Cedric Mullins (and this Orioles team as a whole) has been, there is room for improvement. So we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice.