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Champ or Chump: Cedric Mullins

Cedric Mullins - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, Betting Picks, DFS Advice

Cedric Mullins is probably one of the biggest fantasy surprises of the year. The 26-year-old was virtually unheard of heading into 2021, though he logged MLB PAs in each season since 2018. Toiling in Baltimore can make it easy to get overlooked, especially if you're posting mediocre numbers with worse peripherals.

Mullins gave up switch-hitting before the 2021 campaign, and there are several indications that something has changed that should make him a useful fantasy piece moving forward. He probably isn't quite as good as his current line of .322/.390/.533 with nine homers and nine steals might suggest, so the final verdict on him depends on what you're looking for.

Without further ado, let's take a deeper look at the best player on the Baltimore Orioles.

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An Interesting Minor League Journey

The good thing about evaluating a 26-year-old who is making a major league impact for the first time is that we have a ton of MiLB data to help us figure out what type of player he is. Mullins debuted for Double-A (Bowie) in 2017, slashing .265/.319/.460 with 13 HR and nine steals over 350 PAs, though his baserunning loses some of its luster when you consider that he was caught seven times. His 13.3% HR/FB is still his professional best, suggesting that power isn't really his game either.

That said, Mullins displayed quality plate discipline in his first exposure to advanced pitching with a 7.7 BB% and 16.6 K%. His .283 BABIP was a bit low, but there was definitely something to build on. Mullins did exactly that when he returned to the level in 2018, slashing .313/.362/.512 with six homers and nine steals over 218 PAs. He was much more efficient on the bases with one CS at Double-A while his plate discipline stats held steady (6.9 BB%, 12.8 K%). His BABIP jumped to .339 and earned Mullins a promotion to Triple-A (Norfolk).

Mullins's BABIP fell to .298 at the higher level, but he still slashed a respectable .267/.332/.425 with five homers, 12 steals, and zero CS in 267 PAs. Most impressively, his plate discipline stats arguably improved a little with an 8.2 BB% and 14.2 K%. The performance earned him a big league debut, though his .235/.312/.425 line with five homers and two steals against three CS in 267 PAs were nothing to write home about. Still, the 23-year-old seemed to be on track.

The Orioles anointed Mullins as their starting centerfielder in 2019, but soured on him quickly. He was demoted to Triple-A after about 60 PAs and didn't hit that well there either, slashing just .205/.272/.306 with five homers and 13 steals in 306 PAs. However, most of the skills that made him interesting to begin the season were still intact. His four CS weren't that bad, computing to a success rate of about 76%. His approach was still solid with a 8.2 BB% and 16.7 K%. The biggest change was a .231 BABIP that seemed bound for positive regression given time.

The Orioles didn't have the patience for that, demoting their Opening Day centerfielder back to Double-A for the remainder of the 2019 season. He hit a solid .271/.341/.402 with five homers and 20 steals in 226 PAs with just three CS, making 2019 his best SB season to date with 34 including the one for the O's. His BABIP rebounded to .293, his approach remained strong with a 9.7 BB% and 13.7 K%, and you have to wonder if the Orioles overreacting to his Triple-A BABIP adversely affected his development.

With 2020 being what it was, Mullins never returned to minor league ball. That said, his performance above suggests that Mullins combines a good plate approach with the legs to steal 30 bases, something that translates well to fantasy. His BABIP may not be as high as you'd expect given his speed, but his average usually landed in the .260-.270 range. He's not much of a power guy, but isn't a complete zero in the category either.

It's also worth noting that both Bowie and Norfolk are relatively hostile environments for hitters. Norfolk ranked as a homer haven in 2019 thanks to the nitro-charged baseball they used, but its 0.918 HR factor and 0.996 BABIP factor per Baseball America made it a pitcher's park, relatively speaking. Bowie's 1.089 HR factor may have inflated Mullins's power numbers, but its 0.995 BABIP factor ranked in the third percentile of MiLB ballparks for average. That combination is really bad for a speed guy like Mullins. It must be tempting to start swinging for the fences when they seem so close.

 

Mullins-ing Around in the Show

Mullins recorded 153 PAs for the Orioles in 2020, slashing .271/.315/.402 with three homers and seven steals. Fantasy managers didn't really take notice because his .350 BABIP looked inflated and his plate discipline looked bad. However, his MiLB track record suggested that he was better than his 5.2 BB% and 24.2 K%. So did his 33% chase rate and 10 SwStr%, albeit to a lesser degree than his minor league numbers.

Mullins has answered all of those concerns in 2021. His 9.8 BB% and 17.6 K% are both more representative of his minor league work and completely backed by improvements in his 7.4 SwStr% and 28.5% chase rate. His BABIP is higher at .368, but it too is backed by positive changes. Most notably, his IFFB% has been cut from an insanely high 21.9% in 2020 to just 5.7% in '21. Baseball Savant says that Mullins deserves a batting average of .274 based on his launch angles and exit velocities, and this author is inclined to add a few extra points to that due to his 28.5 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed.

It isn't all good news though. Mullins's 92.1 mph average airborne exit velocity is middling, with most of his power the result of hitting more fly balls (34.8 FB% in 2021, 39.3% this year) as opposed to hitting them well. His 5.5% rate of Brls/BBE is double his 2020 mark of 2.8%, but it's still below average for an MLB hitter. Baseball Savant says that Mullins's slugging percentage should be just .436, nearly 100 points below his actual mark.

 

Conclusions

Mullins looks like a power-speed threat with an elite average by surface numbers alone, but his power isn't supported by his Statcast contact quality metrics or his MiLB history. As such, we shouldn't expect it to continue. His four CS are also mildly perturbing, though the resulting success rate of 69% is probably fine as long as the Orioles are rebuilding. Most importantly, Mullins likely projects as a .280 hitter the rest of the way, a number that may be plus-plus in today's game.

If you need Mullins to continue playing like one of the best hitters in the league, you'll probably be disappointed. However, a .280 hitter with 20-25 steals and a handful of homers (think 15 over a full season) is a Champ in most contexts, and you'll be happy as long as you keep your expectations realistic. Heck, that's Whit Merrifield Lite!



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