Baltimore Orioles: Comparing Breakout Seasons of Mullins and Hays

Baltimore Orioles left fielder Austin Hays (21) and Baltimore Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins (31) and Baltimore Orioles right fielder Anthony Santander (25) celebrate. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
Baltimore Orioles left fielder Austin Hays (21) and Baltimore Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins (31) and Baltimore Orioles right fielder Anthony Santander (25) celebrate. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports /

Amidst the pounding rain storm that drenched Baltimore on Wednesday night, Austin Hays achieved a feat that only five other players in the history of the Baltimore Orioles had: he hit for the cycle.

The final hit of the cycle was a double over the center fielder Lane Thomas’ head amid a torrential downpour. The game was officially called shortly after this hit, and the Baltimore Orioles had a 7-0 win to improve their record to 31-39. The timing of this cycle is critical for Hays as he was coming off a four-strikeout performance the night before, and every game matters as the All-Star game is approaching in mid-July.

Hays clearly has a breakout season which reminds us of another Orioles outfielder who just a season earlier had his own breakout season in Cedric Mullins.

Mullins was, of course, the starting center fielder for the American League All-Star team last year and achieved the rare milestone of 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases as he was the first Oriole in franchise history to do so.

There are plenty of similarities between Hays’ 2022 breakout campaign and Mullins’ 2021 season, as they both emerged as outfielders the Baltimore Orioles will likely want to build around as the rebuild comes to a close. While Mullins and Hays have plenty of similarities on the field, let’s compare the two breakout seasons and see which player has the brightest future in Charm City.

Before the Breakout Season

Baltimore Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins (31) Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Baltimore Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins (31) Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /

Both Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins were highly touted outfield prospects in the Orioles organization, and it became apparent during the 2017 and 2018 seasons that both players would have a chance to be pivotal outfielders for the team once Adam Jones moved on. Austin Hays made a premature big league debut in September 2017, while Mullins made his debut less than a year later and finished the 2018 season as the O’s everyday center fielder.

The two outfielders played a limited role for the Orioles in 2019 as Mullins played only 22 games in April, and Hays finished the season playing only 21 games. As many Orioles fans remember, Mullins had an atrocious season at the plate with a slash line of .094/.181/.156 in those 22 games as he eventually was demoted to Double-A Bowie, and it seemed that he might not have another chance at the significant league level.

These struggles meant that the O’s had to turn to Stevie Wilkerson as their everyday center fielder for the majority of the season before Hays finished the season with the O’s and had an impressive slash line of .309/.373/.574. Both players were essentially league-average players during the shortened 2020 season, as Hays had an OPS+ of 96 and Mullins an OPS+ of 95.

The Breakout Seasons

Going into 2021, Cedric Mullins had a lot to prove as he had struggled to make an impact offensively for the Baltimore Orioles, and he had to compete with young outfielders such as Hays and Anthony Santander, and DJ Stewart for playing time. Obviously, Mullins earned regular playing time and then some as he finished the season with a .291/.360/.518 slash line along with the first 30/30 season in franchise history.

Mullins also finished 9th in MVP voting and won a Silver Slugger award as one of the three best offensive outfielders in the American League. He also had an impressive season defensively as he saved ten runs above average according to Fangraphs and accumulated 6.0 Wins Above Replacement collectively according to the Fangraphs WAR algorithm.

Similarly, after average seasons in 2020 and 2021, Austin Hays has emerged as a star player during the 2022 season with a slash line of .287/.347/.482 through 65 games, along with ten home runs and 40 runs batted in. Hays’ major season milestone occurred Wednesday night against the Nationals when he went 4-for-4 with each a single, double, triple, and home run in the shortened six-inning game. Hays has also emerged as an above-average defensive outfielder with one of the best throwing arms in league with five outfield assists thus far.

Which Season Has Been Better?

Since we are 70 games into the Baltimore Orioles 2022 season, it is only fair that we compare the two players through 70 games of their respective seasons. As a team, the Orioles are eight games better in 2022 than they were in 2021 with a record of 31-39 compared to 23-47 last year.

Cedric Mullins had a two-home run game in the 70th game last year as the Orioles dropped a heartbreaker to the Toronto Blue Jays 10-7. After this game was completed, Mullins had a slash line of .323/.395/.560 for an OPS of .955. As impressive as Hays has been so far this season, it is easy to forget just how dominant Mullins was through the beginning of last season.

Looking into the peripheral stats, Hays has been hitting the ball harder than Mullins despite being on pace for fewer home runs and having a lower slugging percentage. Hays has a hard-hit percentage of 43.7% so far this year, compared to Mullins’ 39.4% in 2021.

The two players have essentially had the same average exit velocities, and Mullins produced the ideal contact more often as he had more barrels and a higher sweet spot % than Hays. Mullins also had a higher launch angle than Hays, but with the new outfield configurations at Camden Yards, it seems that hitting more line drives is more optimal as it has become more difficult for righties to hit homers.

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Ultimately, through 70 games, it is clear that Mullins had a better start to the 2021 season than Hays has had so far in 2022, but it is also increasingly clear that both players have been highly similar at the plate and in the outfield. With some young outfielders such as Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad working their way up through the minor league system and a potential draft pick of Druw Jones, both players have proven themselves as viable options for the future of the Orioles franchise.