There were hints in Monday’s home opener that Cedric Mullins was close. He liked his two-run single, of course, the base knock that gave the Orioles an Opening Day 2-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. But there was also a lineout to the pitcher that felt right, and a foul ball down the third base line that signaled his all-field approach was getting back on track.
But those were just hints. What Mullins did Tuesday wasn’t nearly as subtle.
With the bases loaded in the second inning, Mullins caught a hanging curveball and launched it over the right field fence for his first grand slam. And in the ninth inning, against a sinker from left-handed All-Star reliever Josh Hader, he crushed a double off the wall. Instead of a whisper, it was a yell: Mullins might have struggled in his first four games, but those could be swept aside rapidly.
“Incredible for him to step up like that,” right-hander Spenser Watkins said. “He’s our guy.”
After Monday’s opener, Mullins stood in the clubhouse postgame next to his Silver Slugger award, a reminder of his 30-homer, 30-steal season in 2021 that also featured a start in the All-Star Game. That display put the league on notice for what Mullins is capable of achieving. And teams spent the offseason discerning a way to counteract his influence.
What those opponents discovered was a steady dose of low, inside sinkers could cause issues, at least across a small sample size. Mullins struck out nine times in his first four games this year, struggling against left-handers with downward sinking action — a movement Mullins said early Tuesday afternoon is different than what he saw in matchups against southpaws last season, his first since abandoning switch-hitting.
That’s the way of it, though. Mullins only saw sinkers 16.3% of the time in 2021, according to MLB Statcast. He missed on just 7.6% of his swings against those pitches. That changed drastically through the first four games, with the Tampa Bay Rays and Brewers taking a new approach.
In those four games, Mullins saw a sinker 35.8% of the time and whiffed on 47.1% of his swings..
“Teams have a long time to game plan for good players, and teams now have departments of people to dissect how to get hitters out,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “And they’re going to expose your weaknesses. And that’s what good hitters do in this league: Constantly making adjustments. And Cedric’s in that area right now with some of the adjustments he’s going to have to make back to the league.”
Mullins declined to delve too into much detail of how he’s preparing to face the inside sinking action — he didn’t want to tip off his opponents — but he’s been in the cage early, he said. He knows what to work on.
The issues in Tampa Bay, especially, was his instinct to turn on a ball early. And in Monday’s home opener, the Brewers dealt him a similar diet of two-seamers and sinkers. Of the 24 pitches he faced across five at-bats, 16 of them were sinkers.
He saw four in the first plate appearance alone, swinging through two and fouling off the other two. When he saw four inside sinkers in the fourth inning, he again fouled a pair and swung through two more en route to a second strikeout.
But so much of it is location. His two-run single came on a sinker left over the outer third of the plate, and a liner back at the pitcher later on, came on a sinker left up in the strike zone. When he crushed Hader’s sinker, that pitch came near the top of the zone, too, a momentary respite from the barrage of pitches under his hands.
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Before Tuesday’s outing, Hyde said he thought Mullins was “still searching a little bit” for his swing. But the hints he showed Monday gave way to a full-fledged yell Tuesday, a pair of swings that sent balls flying for — and over — the wall.
He didn’t do it against a sinker under the hands. Not every pitcher has that in his repertoire. Those tests are sure to continue as the season progresses, as teams adapt to how they pitch him. Mullins, though, feels he can pass those tests, and Tuesday’s showing wasn’t a bad case study.
“I think the consistency is coming around,” Mullins said.
Today, 7:05 p.m.
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