When we recap the 2021 campaign, it’s hard to think of a more surprising performer in 2021 than Baltimore Orioles outfielder Cedric Mullins. Seriously, try. How can a guy go from slashing .094/.181/.156 with a negative -12 wRC+ in 2019, to a .271/.315/.407 line and a 95 wRC+ in 2020, to a fantastic .291/.360/.518 and a 136 wRC+ this season?
Mullins was the majors’ only 30-30 player this year, he scored 91 runs on a lousy Orioles’ team, and had a .228 ISO packed in his 5’8”, 175 lb frame. To say he achieved a lot (including an All-Star selection) would be an understatement. But how did he do it?
It all starts with handedness. A switch-hitter for most of his professional career, right-handed Mullins was a serious liability at the plate. As a righty, he slashed .147/.250/.189 with a putrid .439 OPS in 111 plate appearances. His wRC+ was 25. Coming into camp this season, he decided to bat left-handed exclusively, and the decision paid off handsomely: he showed he could handle pitchers of his same hand by hitting .277/.337/.451 with a .788 OPS and a 113 wRC+ against southpaws, which is excellent.
Of course, he also put in a lot of hard work over the last couple of seasons. Talking with FanGraphs’ David Laurila in August, Mullins explained that he did make some tweaks to his stance with the help of tech resources.
“I’ve made some tweaks. We brought the technology and the robots out and got some numbers on what my swing path looks like and how I could make a few [changes] to be more consistent through the zone. For me, it’s more or less just ‘see the ball, get a pitch to hit, put a good swing on it,’ but at the same time, the game has changed so much. Now you can see what your body is doing on certain things. It’s a matter of being attentive to those things.”
He said that the changes began to take place after the 2019 season, after he had the -12 wRC+ in 74 plate appearances. “I was out in St. Louis working with a hitting guru, Rick Strickland. He had all that stuff available and ready for me. We talked about what my swing has been doing. We put the K-Vest on, and it matched what I felt in games. It was just a matter of trying to progress from there with different drills,” he explained.
Now, his approach is similar to 2019, but he is standing more upright than he used to, and “I have my barrel flatter as a starting point as opposed to more vertical. Those small adjustments helped make my swing more consistent, just more useful in games.”
Some of these gains were starting to show after 2020 when he was a league-average hitter, but embracing the changes, getting more familiar with his stance, and ditching right-handed hitting helped him take off.
Now, it’s fair to point out that he did outperform his .343 xwOBA with a .372 wOBA, so there is a chance 2021 is a career year for Mullins. However, he has established a very high floor and turned himself into an All-Star.
Look at Mullins’ Statcast profile in 2021:
Now, here is where he was at in 2020:
We see a lot more red this year. Even if his 39.4 percent hard-hit rate is a tad below-average, it was the best mark of his career and proof of his evolution as a hitter.
Plate discipline and contact were two areas in which he made significant gains. He had his lowest O-Swing % in three years, at 30 percent, and his 87.8 Z-Contact % is also his best register in the last three seasons. In other words, he was more selective and tried to avoid pitches outside of the zone and made more contact inside the zone.
As a result, his 81.7 percent contact rate was very solid. It was not a personal high, as he had an 83.1 percent contact rate back in 2018, but he was a slap hitter back then, slashing .235/.312/.359 with a .124 ISO three years ago. Now, he still profiles more like a leadoff hitter than a slugger but is more equipped to inflict damage if he sees a pitch he likes due to his improved barrel control, stance adjustments, experience, and the fact he is now swinging exclusively left-handed.
Mullins may have reached his ceiling with his elite 2021 performance, but he dramatically increased his floor and is now a legitimate star. Surprise!
Andrés Chávez loves the game of baseball and writes about it at Beyond the Box Score, Pinstripe Alley, and other sites. He is on Twitter as @andres_chavez13