One of the best Orioles seasons in recent memory was rewarded in fitting fashion Wednesday with Cedric Mullins being named the unanimous winner of the 2021 Louis M. Hatter Most Valuable Oriole award.
Mullins, who turns 27 on Friday, was the team’s first All-Star Game starter since 2018 and last week became the first Oriole to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season — just a handful of the accomplishments that have come in a year when Mullins’ role in spring training was uncertain.
“30-30 doesn’t come around very often and Gold Glove defense in center field doesn’t come around very often, either,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “When you’ve done something that no Oriole has done, it’s hard to do anything better than that.”
Mullins, who’s established himself as a foundational piece in the club’s long-term rebuild, said it will take until he gets back to Georgia next month to truly let the award and all he’s accomplished this season sink in.
“I definitely want to wait until I get home and kind of get settled into the offseason a little bit, and I’ll have time to take that breather and do what everyone does after the season — reflect on the things that you did, what you can get better at and just prepare for the offseason ahead,” he said.
The Orioles’ Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year in 2018, Mullins debuted that August as the center field heir to Adam Jones and was the club’s Opening Day center fielder in 2019. He struggled badly, though, earning a demotion less than a month into the season and ultimately spending the second half at Double-A Bowie.
From there, Mullins rebuilt himself into an All-Star. He started 2020 with the major league team when the delayed season began in July, but needed a trip to the alternate site to get him back on track offensively.
Mullins said he’s come a long way from that point.
“I’d say the amount of confidence I have now compared to two years ago is significantly different,” he said. “Looking back at where I was, I feel like there are certain things that I was continuously worrying about, and trying to be competitive as a switch-hitter was one of them. Just kind of breaking that down and getting rid of it and focusing on one swing, staying with my stronger side, it definitely helped my mindset.
This winter, he decided to abandon switch-hitting and solely bat left-handed as his dominant side was far more productive. That decision unlocked a hitter who has been among the most prolific for the Orioles in recent memory.
Mullins said his success batting left-handed full-time, especially against left-handed pitching, surprised him some considering he hadn’t done it since high school.
“The goal was just trying to be competitive out on the field every day,” he said. “That was the best decision for it, and it worked out really well in my favor. ... The group that I’m around have a lot of support, and they had faith in what I could accomplish this year — especially giving up switch-hitting. I think just the preparation for the season kind of gave me the confidence going in, and it was just a matter of doing it at that point.”
When opposing coaches and managers talk to Hyde about his All-Star outfielder, all he hears is “high praise,” he said.
“He is an extremely tough out, tough to pitch to,” Hyde said. “Incredibly short swing, not a ton of holes if you look on like a heat-map, there’s not glaring weaknesses. The bunt, they’ve got to play the first baseman in. They rave about his defense also, how many runs he’s saved us by getting the balls in the gaps. They’re very, very impressed.
“I think the most surprised everybody has been is how can somebody do this versus left-handed pitching who just started hitting left-handed, lefty-on-lefty only. Nobody has really seen that before, a guy do it that quick. That’s what I hear from the other side — that it’s amazing. Not only is his year amazing, but him being able to go left-on-left right away.”
Mullins entered Wednesday batting .298 with an .898 OPS, with his wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) — which adjusts for hitting conditions in the ballpark and league — at 141. Only Chris Davis’ 2013 and 2015 seasons rate better among Orioles in the last decade. Mullins’ 5.6 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs, is the highest for an Orioles player since Manny Machado in 2016.
As such, the accolades have piled up for Mullins. He wasn’t voted a starter for the 2021 MLB All-Star Game in fan voting, but with Mike Trout unable to fulfill that assignment, Mullins was selected as his worthy replacement. When the teams were initially announced, Mullins was on the roster as the top outfielder voted into the game by his peers.
Buoyed by that experience at the All-Star Game, Mullins got better as the second half began. He slowed some as September wore on, but when he broke a mini-drought and hit home run No. 30 on Friday, Camden Yards was rapt in its joy for him.
After being congratulated by his teammates, Mullins was called out for a curtain call by the fans in attendance. At the turn of the inning, Mullins’ teammates remained in the dugout to allow him the chance to soak in even more cheers.
In July, as the All-Star Game approached, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was strong in his support for the player Mullins has grown into.
“He is very quickly becoming a face of the franchise kind of player for us,” Elias said. “He’s been one of the best players in baseball in the first half. He’s possibly the best center fielder outside of Trout in the American League, and he’s possibly the best defensive center fielder in the American League. So, 26 years old, homegrown, it’s a very special thing.”
Mullins also received votes for the award last season upon his return to the big leagues in the shortened 2020 season, though Anthony Santander won the award. Trey Mancini (2019), Jones (2018), Jonathan Schoop (2017) and Machado (2016) are among the recent winners. Jones, who won it in 2011 and 2012, was the last center fielder to win the award.
This year, votes also went to Mancini, John Means, Ryan Mountcastle, Santander and Ramón Urías.
Mullins will receive the award ahead of Wednesday night’s game against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards.