Cedric Mullins' baseball journey a tale of failure, perseverance and, ultimately, success

NATHAN RUIZ
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Baltimore Orioles' Cedric Mullins gestures after hitting a solo home run off Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Anthony Kay during the seventh inning of a baseball game, Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

When Cedric Mullins first rejoined the Norfolk Tides in April 2019, Gary Kendall could sense the differences.

Kendall, in his first season as the manager of the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate, had coached Mullins the year before at Double-A Bowie, seeing a player with surprising power for his size, impressive speed and dazzling defense.

“When he came down to Triple-A, it was the first time that I saw him kind of lose his confidence a little bit,” Kendall said. “And being a confident hitter is very important.”

Perhaps no player this season has served as a better example of that than Mullins. After serving as Baltimore’s Opening Day leadoff man and center fielder in 2019, he found himself playing under Kendall again, and only a few months later, he was back in Bowie.

But Tuesday, two years and two days removed from the second demotion of a disappointing season, Mullins was set to be the American League’s starting center fielder in the All-Star Game at Colorado’s Coors Field. He made the team as Baltimore’s lone representative by virtue of being the top vote recipient among AL outfielders in player voting. He was selected as the replacement for injured superstar Mike Trout because he has been, in almost any metric, the AL’s top outfielder.

“The good ones persevere,” Kendall said.

Impressive numbers: Mullins leads AL outfielders in slugging percentage, extra-base hits, steals and FanGraph’s version of Wins Above Replacement. He ranks second in Baseball-Reference’s edition, as well as batting average, on-base percentage and OPS. His 16 first-half home runs are more than he’s hit in any full season of his career, and his four multi-homer games are tied for the sport’s second most. His defense, which Orioles manager Brandon Hyde has continually proclaimed as deserving of a Gold Glove Award, has him ranked third among all outfielders in Statcast’s Outs Above Average.

“He is very quickly becoming a face of the franchise kind of player for us,” Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike 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.”

Past struggles: This success comes after he went 6-for-64 with the Orioles in 2019. He got regular playing time with Baltimore at the end of 2018, positioning himself to be longtime center fielder Adam Jones’ successor. But he was often overmatched and got demoted to Norfolk less than a month into the following season.

There, the struggles continued, as he batted .205/.272/.306 for the Tides. Teammate and close friend Austin Hays had watched Mullins shine in the minors, earning the nickname “Parking Lot Ced” in Bowie for his ability to hit the ball out of the stadium. Because Hays began the year on the injured list, he was only on Norfolk’s roster for a couple of weeks when Mullins was demoted to Bowie on July 11, 2019.

“In that amount of time, I could tell that he was very frustrated because he had kind of resorted back to a lot of stuff he’d done in the past when he’d had struggles,” Hays said. “Nothing seemed to be working for him.”

Rediscovering himself: In Bowie, Mullins began to rediscover himself. He performed well as the Baysox advanced to the Double-A Championship Series. When the coronavirus pandemic meant teams opened the 2020 season with expanded rosters, Mullins rejoined the Orioles in the majors. He again started slow and once more was sent to Bowie, this time for a weeklong stint at the club’s alternate training where Kendall said he worked on mechanics and facing different sequences of pitches, before returning and sticking with the major league team. He batted .291 with a .769 OPS in that stretch, offering a glimpse at what was to come.

This offseason, Mullins made the uncommon decision to abandon switch-hitting, choosing to exclusively hit from his natural left side. Despite having not faced a left-handed pitcher as a left-handed batter since he was in high school, he ranks 10th in baseball in hits off lefties. In 19 more at-bats, he has 20 more hits off left-handers than he did batting right-handed from 2018-20.

“Obviously, he’s got a lot of talent, but it takes a lot of character to be able to do and handle what he’s had to handle the last couple of years,” Bowie manager Buck Britton said. “There was two ways to go for him: He could either grind it out, or he could have thrown in the towel.

“You’re just seeing the fruit of what this guy’s really about.”

Quiet man: Although Britton agreed with Kendall that Mullins had shaken confidence in 2019, Mullins never allowed his teammates to see it, many of them said.

“He’s so quiet all the time, you honestly can’t tell the difference when he’s playing bad or he’s playing really good,” Hays said. “Honestly, he’s the same guy. Maybe a little bit happier now than he was then, but just as far as how he carries himself, he’s just always been the same way.”

Still, they can see how clearly his confidence shows on the field these days. Hyde noted how, after one of his numerous diving catches, he flipped the ball to a teammate from his knees, a smooth yet simple show of self-belief.

“Every day he comes out, you can just see it in his body language, everything,” said Ryan Mountcastle, who was at Norfolk and the alternate site with Mullins. “He’s ready to go and there’s nothing that intimidates him or anything. It feels like he has a chance every time he comes up to the plate to make a big hit for us, and defensively, too. He’s running down balls that I think are for sure doubles in the gap. It’s pretty crazy.”

Taking an unusual path: As the Orioles have struggled this year, Hyde has noted continually that it’s common for players to experience failure early in their major league careers and need another stint in the minors. But even he said what Mullins has done is unprecedented.

“It’s incredibly unusual,” Hyde said. “Guys get to the big leagues and a lot of times they’ll fail that second year, or they have to make adjustments, but how far Cedric has come is, to me, amazing. Where he was two years ago to now, being one of the top outfielders in the league, is an amazing accomplishment. It shows how tough he is, mentally, to deal with the adversity he has and to be able to perform the way he is right now.”

Inspiring journey: That journey — Opening Day starter to All-Star starter with a stop in Double-A between — is one that can inspire other members of the organization, teammates and coaches said.

“It proves that if you stay the course with yourself, this organization, it’s very big in opportunity right now,” said Orioles outfielder Ryan McKenna, who was Mullins’ roommate at Bowie in 2019. “I don’t think they ever stopped believing in Cedric as a player. I know that he’s the type of guy that likes to have that, ‘Hey, it’s me against the world’ type of mentality and confidence, and that’s a good thing, I think. It’s something that has done well for him so far.

“It’s a crazy story for sure, but he’s such a good player that I never really had any doubt that he was going to be this caliber.”

Story isn’t over: Mullins, though, hopes that story isn’t over yet.

“It’s good to be able to reflect on those moments and know that I’ve grown and matured as a player,” Mullins said. “It’s just a matter of continuing to progress from here. It feels like I’ve hit a sort of peak, but I’m trying to see if I can continue to push that limit.”