What perhaps stood out most to Orioles manager Brandon Hyde about Cedric Mullins’ latest sensational catch in center field in Wednesday’s first inning wasn’t the play itself, but what Mullins did immediately after.
Once he completed his diving catch and slide across the Camden Yards grass, Mullins rose to his knees and flipped the ball from his glove to left fielder DJ Stewart’s with flair.
“He would have never done something like that two years ago,” Hyde said. “That just shows, for me, that he’s playing with more of a confidence about him that he can catch every ball.
“He’s had an All-Star first half and a Gold Glove first half.”
The 2021 All-Star Game will come just after the two-year anniversary of Mullins’ demotion to Double-A amid his plummet after beginning the season as Hyde’s Opening Day leadoff hitter. Through the first two-plus month of the season, he’s earned his way to Denver. Even after his nine-game hitting streak was snapped Friday, he’s batting .318/.386/.527 with nine home runs and nine steals while making highlight catches repeatedly in center. He also has yet to go more than three consecutive games without a hit and only once gone back-to-back games without reaching base.
He’s been the lone consistent member of a young outfield group that figured to be among the Orioles’ greatest strengths this year. Each of the others has dealt with struggles, injuries or both.
Among that group is Austin Hays, who returned from his second injured list stint Friday. He and Mullins have played together for at least part of the season each of the past five years, including in 2017 with Double-A Bowie where — as Hays revealed Friday — Mullins earned the nickname “Parking Lot Ced.”
“Because he hits the balls to the parking lot,” Hays said. “He’s always been able to hit for power. It’s like people are surprised that he’s hitting home runs, but he’s always been a little bit of a thumper. He’s always been a guy that can steal 30 bags.
“It’s fun seeing him do what I knew that he always could here in the big leagues and finally showing everybody what he’s always done.”
The Orioles are waiting for the rest of their outfielders, including Hays, to do so on a regular basis, as well. Hays has played well when healthy but has missed about half the season thus far with strains in each hamstring. Rookie Ryan Mountcastle is turning around an incredibly slow start, but he’s doing so while playing serving as a first baseman and designated hitter more often than an outfielder. 2020 Most Valuable Oriole Anthony Santander has yet to get going after missing a month with a left ankle sprain. DJ Stewart couldn’t fully capitalize on the playing time made available by that injury or Hays’.
Friday represented only the seventh game this year all five have been on the active roster together, with Hays and Santander essentially seesawing on the IL. Hyde has often brushed aside how he’ll balance playing time among those outfielders, noting that typically manages to sort itself out. He echoed that concept Friday, saying Hays’ return will allow him to provide others rest as needed.
“It’s a season of 162, and things happen along the way that you never really have your full roster,” Hyde said. “Those days that you do, you relish, but you understand that there’s things that happen, injuries happen. That’s why depth is so important in our game.”
When Hays has been on the field, he’s been productive; among Orioles with at least 300 plate appearance over the past three years, only Trey Mancini has produced a higher value in weighted runs created plus, an all-encompassing offensive metric. But including minor league stints, Hays has been on the IL six times in the past four seasons. Hyde said it’s too early to label him injury prone.
“I think he’s still really young in his career,” Hyde said. “I’m not ready to do that yet. He’s still got a long future ahead of him in this game. He’s got major league ability. He’s had some tough breaks. I think it’s going to turn for him.”
Added Hays: “Obviously, there’s kind of a couple-day period every single time that I go through it where you have the ‘Woe is me’ feeling, ‘Why does this keep happening to me?’ That’s when I really lean on my family and my wife to really keep my head on straight and just start focusing on my next thing, which is the start of the rehab, getting through it, getting back healthy and then having a positive mindset and not losing my confidence that I can perform at a high level when I’m on the field.”
The Orioles’ other outfielders are beginning to trend toward doing the same. After batting .198 in April, Mountcastle is the reigning American League Player of the Week and entered Friday hitting .296 with an .876 OPS since. Although his OPS is about 150 points beneath that of his MVO campaign in a similar number of games, Santander has that figure near .900 since coming off the IL. DJ Stewart, the only of these five who wasn’t in Friday’s lineup, has three multi-hit games in June to match his total from the season’s first two months.
If they can all begin matching Mullins’ run of consistency while staying on the field, Hyde will actually have some tough decisions on his hands.