Persistent Mullins remains catalyst for contending Orioles

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You may have heard by now that Sunday marked one year since star catcher Adley Rutschman made his major league debut for the Orioles. 

The first overall pick in the 2019 draft who became the face of an exhausting rebuild under general manager Mike Elias, Rutschman is a force multiplier with Baltimore having gone 98-71 since his promotion. Yes, everything appeared to change from the moment the 25-year-old arrived at Camden Yards last May. 

But Rutschman would be the first to tell you he hasn’t done it by himself. Far from it. 

With the Orioles entering Monday 15 games above .500 for the first time since 2016, Rutschman is in the midst of an All-Star-caliber season, but he isn’t the club leader in hits, runs batted in, doubles, triples, on-base plus slugging percentage, or wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference or FanGraphs. Those distinctions belong to the man who truly symbolizes just how far the Orioles have come since that 2018 collapse that left no alternative but to begin anew. 

Coming off a five-hit, three-RBI performance in Sunday’s 8-3 extra-inning victory in Toronto, Cedric Mullins is both the catalyst for a contending club and a reminder of how treacherous the road was to get to this point. Especially for observers who all but tuned out the Orioles during the ugliest days of the rebuild, it’s easy to forget the immense struggles Mullins endured to emerge as one of baseball’s best center fielders over the last three years. 

A favorite prospect of former Orioles manager Buck Showalter and deemed the successor to the beloved Adam Jones, Mullins debuted late in that 2018 season and was regarded as one of the few building blocks in place for the new regime despite some September struggles that weren’t out of the ordinary for a rookie. But after starting in center and leading off in that 2019 opener, Mullins went 6-for-64 and was demoted to Triple-A Norfolk 3 1/2 weeks later. The 2015 13th-round pick out of Campbell University wouldn’t play in the majors again that season and was demoted again to Double-A Bowie that July, his professional career seemingly in a free fall and the new regime and coaching staff unlikely to be as patient and invested in a player they hadn’t drafted. 

But Mullins persevered, even after again being briefly demoted early in the abbreviated 2020 season. He regrouped to post a solid .271 average and .723 OPS in 48 games, but the turning point would come that offseason as he underwent surgery for Crohn’s disease and decided to abandon switch-hitting — a move you rarely see at this level of competition — after persistent struggles from the right side of the plate. Not even a lock to be the everyday center fielder entering the spring of 2021, Mullins instead became the first player in Orioles history to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same year and was named to his first All-Star Game in one of the better individual seasons in club history. 

Not only did the 28-year-old save his career, but he now serves as the perfect example to any young prospect arriving in the majors and struggling to find immediate success. That’s a valuable asset for a young club sporting the second-best record in the majors and still having plenty of prospects on the way. 

“I just think [it’s] the confidence that he has in himself, that he has in his game,” close friend and old minor-league roommate Austin Hays said earlier this month. “He’s as prepared as anybody can be every day to steal a bag, to hit a homer, to take his walks. He’s an elite defender. He’s grown to be one of the best at everything you can do. He had the confidence to bang [hitting from] the right side and just go all lefty, and that’s tough to do when you’ve done that your whole life. I think making that switch showed the confidence that he had in himself, and he’s run with it. He’s been one of the best center fielders in all of baseball since he’s made that switch.”

Mullins’ fingerprints are all over the success of the 2023 Orioles with his club-leading .876 OPS, 13 stolen bases, and his superb defense in center field. To this point in the young season, he’s also walking a career-high 11.6% of the time, which only augments his value at the top of the order. And after falling off against left-handed pitching last season, Mullins is 14-for-51 with a .510 slugging percentage against southpaws this year, more closely resembling what he did in his breakout 2021 campaign. 

Elias and the Orioles often discuss the desire for players to have a growth mindset to combat the inevitable failures and make the necessary adjustments to succeed in professional baseball. And while Rutschman has made the major league game look pretty easy over his first calendar year in the majors, it’s Mullins who best symbolizes Baltimore’s journey from the abyss of three 108-plus-loss seasons to having the second-best record in baseball today. It was far from smooth sailing.

Whether it was hitting for the cycle a couple weekends ago or leading the Orioles to an impressive sweep of the Blue Jays, Mullins deserves every bit of praise and the spotlight he’s receiving as the catalyst for a contender and the organization’s best example of perseverance paying off. 

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