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Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins’ highlight-filled season not enough to earn Gold Glove nomination

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde spent much of 2020 hailing Cedric Mullins as a Gold Glove candidate, only for Baltimore’s center fielder to not even be recognized as a finalist.

Despite continually heaping praise on Mullins during his breakout 2021 season, Hyde largely diminished his Gold Glove-focused compliments, doing so on occasion but for the most part simply acknowledging the smoothness and ease with which Mullins patrolled Camden Yards’ outfield. But a quieter campaign did not deliver a different result.

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Mullins was not among the finalists for the American League’s Gold Glove for center fielders, Rawlings announced Thursday, with Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier, Kansas City’s Michael A. Taylor and Cleveland’s Myles Straw named the three nominees.

To go along with the 30-homer, 30-steal output he produced at the plate to be named a finalist for a Silver Slugger, Mullins’ season was filled with defensive highlights. The standout of the bunch was his leaping, full-extension robbery of New York Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez in September. Needing all 5 feet and 8 inches of his frame to make the catch, Mullins turned his back to the infield for a catch that earned him MLB’s Play of the Week and should give him a shot at the yearly honor.

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He shined on balls that stayed in the yard, too. When former Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz drove an inside fastball to right-center in early June, Mullins raced to the gap and secured the ball with a sliding catch on the warning track dirt.

Mullins also used his defense to show off his blooming confidence, with one play in particular demonstrating that in Hyde’s mind. Less than two weeks after catching Cruz’s drive, Mullins opened a game against the New York Mets with a diving catch to deny former Oriole Jonathan Villar extra bases.

“That is as good a catch as you’re ever going to see by a center fielder,” broadcaster and team legend Jim Palmer said afterward.

It wasn’t the catch that left Hyde most impressed, but the confidence Mullins displayed afterward by flipping the ball from his knees to left fielder DJ Stewart.

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Those three plays are only pieces of the puzzle that resulted in Mullins ranking fourth among AL center fielders in Statcast’s outs above average, which measures a defender’s ability to convert balls in play into outs given the difficulty of those plays. But the players ahead of him in that measure are the three Gold Glove finalists.

Defensive metrics largely remain a work in progress around the sport, but outs above average is one of several in which Mullins rates behind Taylor, Straw and Kiermaier. Mullins had 115 catch opportunities in 2021, according to Statcast — the fourth most of any outfielder behind Taylor, Texas’ Adolis García and Straw — and converted 67% of those opportunities into outs, trailing Kiermaier (78.3%), Straw (68.6%) and Taylor (68.1%). When reducing the pool of opportunities based on the difficulty of the catches, Mullins has the lowest catch rate of the center-field quartet on plays with catch probabilities below 90%, 50% and 25%; on catches in the 75%-or-less range, Mullins surpassed Taylor, but neither Kiermaier nor Straw.

Statcast also measures outfielders based on their reaction times and route-running, determining how many feet versus average they are able to cover thanks to those traits. Kiermaier ranked second among all outfielders at 3.2, with Taylor at 1.8 and Straw at 0.9. Mullins narrowly edged Straw at 1.0.

While Statcast’s metrics had Mullins in the hunt, those available from FanGraphs viewed the race as nowhere near tight. The site’s defensive runs above average measures players’ defensive value, and among the 14 American Leaguers with at least 500 innings in center, Taylor, Kiermaier and Straw were the top three in order. Mullins was second-to-last, one of four measured as providing negative value defensively.

Defensive Runs Saved, which similarly puts a number on a player’s defensive performance in terms of the number of runs they prevented or allowed, ranked Taylor, Kiermaier and Straw first, third and fifth, respectively. Mullins was tied for ninth in DRS, again rating negatively. The largest detractor is not his range or catchability, but his throwing arm. There were 51 players who spent at least 500 innings in the outfield in 2021, and the arm component of Mullins’ DRS was tied for the second lowest of any of them. That metric is determined by how often runners advance or are thrown out when trying to take an extra base against a defender.

Mullins’ defensive highlights were typically in the form of a sensational catch rather than a terrific throw, and advanced metrics seem to back that up. Those areas, though, account for only a quarter of Gold Glove voting, with the rest being determined by the league’s managers and coaches. Although he played about 370 fewer innings in center than Mullins — who trailed only Straw in that measure — Kiermaier’s reputation as one of the game’s premier defenders likely assisted him in that portion of the voting, as he’s already secured three Gold Glove and a Platinum Glove, which honors the game’s top defender regardless of position.

Taylor won the Fielding Bible Award for center fielders, with a panel of sabermetric-focused reporters voting Mullins as the 11th-best defensive center fielder in either league. Austin Hays finished seventh among left fielders, the only other Oriole to receive votes.

An Oriole hasn’t won a Gold Glove since Manny Machado in 2015, and that pair of outfielders seems as likely as anyone to end that streak, with Adley Rutschman’s eventual arrival likely giving Baltimore a contender at catcher, as well. In the meantime, Mullins will surely continue to make Gold Glove-worthy catches, even if they’re not enough to secure the hardware alone.

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