Contemporary baseball prizes the home run and the 98 mph fastball. It places a lower priority on bunting, stolen bases and pitchers who don’t throw in the high 90s.
Although the Orioles are heavy on analytics, there’s still room for players who can play small ball and pitchers who change speeds. Outfielder Cedric Mullins is a prime example of the former.
A year after Mullins started for the Orioles on Opening Day before falling all the way to Double-A Bowie, he made his way back and showed he belonged. Mullins’ defense in center field was so good that manager Brandon Hyde campaigned for a Gold Glove. He wasn’t a finalist even though he recorded five Outs Above Average (OAA), tied for the second-most in the majors by an outfielder, according to Statcast. And a number of those outs were recorded on exceptional plays.
He led the majors in bunt base hits with nine, and was 7-for-9 on stolen-base attempts. Mullins, 26, finished with a .271 average and a .723 OPS. Twenty-eight of his 38 hits were singles.
“… People may not consider bunting and stealing bases a major factor, but scoring runs is,” Mullins said in a video conference call from Sarasota, Florida. “At the end of the day, it’s a matter of who can score more runs than the other team, and those are contributing factors to my game that will help us get some wins.”
Mullins led the team in highlight plays last season. A highlight that wasn’t as eye-catching but was just as effective was the pitching of 35-year-old César Valdez, whose change of speed continually baffled hitters who couldn’t connect on pitches in the 80s.
This spring, the Orioles have added a knuckleballer to their camp at Twin Lakes, Mickey Jannis.
“I do like well-rounded players,” Hyde said. “I like traditional baseball. I like guys that can strike people out and hit homers, also. I do like the guys that can bunt for a hit, hit behind runners, pitchers that come in and throw speed and be able to change speeds, put the ball on the ground.
“I feel like that’s part of winning baseball. A lot of really good clubs have a mixture of guys that can do certain things and not everybody’s a ‘swing-and-miss’ and a homer approach, but guys that are able to move the baseball, put the ball in play with two strikes, steal a bag, be able to go from first to home on a double. I feel like that’s still a part of our game, and that’s the kind of baseball I like.”
Mullins wasn’t considered a top-shelf prospect. He was drafted in the 13th round in 2015, behind the top two picks, DJ Stewart and Ryan Mountcastle, but he got to the big leagues in August 2018, ahead of them.
Mullins supplanted longtime centerfielder Adam Jones and hit .235 in 45 games. His play convinced the Orioles that he could be their centerfielder, but he began 2019 hitting just .094 (6-for-64) in 22 games.
The Orioles sent Mullins to Triple-A Norfolk at the end of April, eventually resorting to Stevie Wilkerson, who’d never played there, as their regular centerfielder.
Mullins hit just .205 in Norfolk and was demoted to Double-A Bowie, where a late-season surge put him at .271. He showed off his speed with the Baysox, stealing 20 of 23 bases in 51 games.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily a cocky person, but that was a humbling experience,” Mullins said.
Last season, Mullins started the season with the Orioles, in part because of an expanded 30-man roster, but after hitting just .077 (1-for-13), he was back at the alternate site at Bowie.
After centerfielder Austin Hays fractured a rib, Mullins was recalled in mid-August, and he hit his stride.
“The confidence level definitely went way up,” Mullins said. “It showed me that I can play this game. I do have that ability. It’s just a matter of being consistent and my offseason approach also included questioning how I could make that possible at the highest level.”
Occasionally, he also hit the ball the distance. On September 4th, Mullins hit the Orioles’ longest home run of the season, 427 feet. “I fully expect someone to beat that this year,” Mullins said.
In Sarasota, Mullins is trying to show that he should continue to be part of an outfield rotation with Hays, Mountcastle and Anthony Santander.
“I consider each spring training more important than the last,” Mullins said. “This year, it’s a matter of showing that what I did last year was me as a baseball player, and now I’m ready to come back and be the same way. I’m just trying to battle for a spot.”
Mullins is going to continue to compete as if he were an underdog.
“The best version of me is someone who’s gritty, that’s always trying to make something happen on the field,” he said. “When I’m able to use my legs, that’s when the full me comes out, able to get the extra-base hit, steal bases, bunt and get a base knock that leads to scoring runs, having exceptional defense at whatever position I’m playing, so maintaining my health and my legs, especially, is when the true me can be his true form.”