Baltimore Orioles 2023 in review: A season of highs and lows for Cedric Mullins

The Orioles' All-Star center fielder had an interesting season, to say the least. How did he grade in our first Orioles Player Report Card for the 2023 season?
Division Series - Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two
Division Series - Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two / Patrick Smith/GettyImages

2023 was an interesting season for the Baltimore Orioles. The team finished with their most wins in a season in the 21st century, won multiple individual awards, and won the division for the first time since 2014. The Orioles also avoided being swept during the entire regular season and have not been swept in a regular season series since Adley Rutschman made his debut on May 21, 2022.

Of course, the emphasis here is on the regular season because the Postseason was an entirely different story as the Orioles played three games and lost all three to the eventual World Series champions in the Texas Rangers. There is a lot of uncertainty in the Orioles' future regarding on-the-field, off-the-field, and which-field-will-they-occupy issues. However, there is no question that 2023 was a special season in Baltimore which ended disappointingly quickly in October.

There was no player in Birdland who better personified the highs and lows of 2023 than Cedric Mullins. Mullins gave the Orioles some special moments during the season but also struggled with injuries and prolonged slumps during critical moments which make his season difficult to assess. That is exactly what I am here for. What should we take away from Mullins' 2023 and what grade will I give him for the season?

Reviewing Cedric Mullins' 2023 season

The Good

Cedric Mullins is a special talent when he is fully healthy. He has thrust himself as a fan-favorite in Baltimore. He became a household name in 2021 when he achieved a 30-home run and 30 stolen base season for the first time in Orioles history and was the starting center fielder for the American League All-Star team.

Since then, he has continued to be a threat at the plate, in the field, and on the basepaths. He has also been the author of some special moments over the past three seasons in Birdland, including multiple season-defining moments for the Orioles in 2023.

The best individual performance for Mullins this season occurred on May 12th against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cedric led off in the lineup on the same evening that the Orioles led off with their new Splash Zone in left field which became an instant success. Mullins hit a single in the third inning before showing off the wheels by turning in a two-out triple in the fifth inning and a one-out double in the seventh.

Of course, this is the first three legs of one of the rare feats in baseball and Mullins would have a chance to complete the cycle in the bottom of the eighth inning when he faced Duane Underwood Jr. with one out and runners on the corners. Orioles fans know what happens next as he launched a three-run homer onto the flag court which gave the O's a 6-2 lead and gave Mullins a curtain-call moment as he ran onto the field before the ninth inning began.

The cycle was the fourth for the Orioles in the 21st century but the second in as many seasons as Austin Hays hit one in a rain-shortened victory over the Nationals in 2022. Mullins had several other "main character" moments this season thanks to several spectacular defensive plays.

Another individual performance that was monumental in the O's historic season occurred on August 13th, when the Orioles played in Seattle on a Sunday afternoon. The night before, the Orioles eeked out a win in a pitchers-duel between George Kirby and the Orioles bullpen. "King" Felix Bautista had the last laugh on that Saturday and Mullins would have the last laugh that Sunday.

Despite not starting in the game, Mullins made his mark as he replaced Ryan O'Hearn in the field for the late innings. Without Bautista available, Mike Baumann attempted to earn the save and he nearly gave up a game-tying homer with one out which was brought back by Mullins in one of the best defensive plays of the season.

Unfortunately, that game-tying homer occurred one batter later and forced extra innings. However, extra innings were short-lived, as Cedric launched a full-count fastball from Trent Thornton into the right field bleachers of T-Mobile Park in Seattle which gave the Orioles a 5-3 lead which they would go on to win by.

Mullins had several other memorable moments throughout the season. Notably, he earned "Play of the Week" honors three separate times in 2023 which proves he is one of the flashiest players in the sport. Along with the home run robbery in Seattle, Cedric also robbed Byron Buxton of a home run in Minnesota and robbed Taylor Walls of an RBI double in one of the biggest games of the season against the Rays in September.

In that same series, Mullins had one of the most memorable RBIs of the season when he hit a walkoff sacrifice fly in an instant-classic 11-inning game which allowed the Orioles to celebrate their first postseason berth since 2016 and gave the O's a relatively comfortable lead in the division with two weeks remaining in the season.

Statistically, Mullins continued to be a menace on the basepaths and showed flashes of brilliance which have been highlighted. In terms of runs saved, Mullins had his best season thus far in his career with a career-high in defensive runs saved, runs saved above average, and runs saved from good plays according to the Fielding Bible.

He also ranked in the 91st percentile for range and outs above average. On the basepaths, Mullins provided positive value for the O's. According to Fangraphs, Mullins provided 3.3 runs above average on the basepaths which ranked in the 85th percentile on Baseball-Savant.

He was also 19-for-22 in stolen base attempts which is a step down from previous seasons in volume but a lot of that can be accounted for since he lost time and some speed due to lower-body injuries.

The Not-So-Good

I just spent about 1,000 words buttering up Cedric. Of course, it was not all great for the O's center fielder. Notably, two separate injuries kept him out for long spurts of time and also was a prerequisite for the O's to sign Aaron Hicks after the Yankees released him. This was undoubtedly Mullins' worst statistical season since 2020 and he slumped at some inopportune times which frustrated Orioles fans.

To put it lightly, the final stats for Mullins were quite mediocre or "mid" as the kids like to say nowadays. He slashed .233/.305/.416 with a 101 OPS+ and 99 wRC+. He did hit 15 home runs and 41 extra base hits overall in 116 games and also turned in a career-best 9.5% walk rate which helped keep his on-base percentage above the .300 mark.

The peripherals were also unkind to Mullins as he ranked in the bottom half of the league in essentially every peripheral category except for chase percentage. He ranked behind 85% of the league in each of the expected stats (expected wOBA, batting average, and slugging percentage). Mullins also accumulated 1.8 WAR according to Fangraphs and 2.8 according to Baseball-Reference which places him squarely as a league-average player.

The other factor to Mullins' season that was not great was his major slumps at major moments throughout the season. Most notably, Cedric limped across the finish line in times when the Orioles needed some offensive firepower. In his first postseason appearance, Mullins went 0-for-12 with three strikeouts and did not reach base.

The slump combined with the emergence of other players such as O'Hearn and Gunnar Henderson forced Mullins to the bottom of the lineup and there were serious questions about whether or not the O's should keep him out of the lineup entirely when they faced lefties Andrew Heaney and Jordan Montgomery.

These struggles did not begin in October. Over the final month of the regular season, Mullins slashed .191/.240/.326 for a .566 OPS and 53 OPS+. In August, Cedric slashed .188/.221/.391 with a 62 OPS+. The home run in Seattle and several other extra-base hits were a saving grace for Mullins as his .391 slugging percentage in August was enough to at least keep him in the lineup most nights.

After a solid first half, Mullins hit .209 with a .635 OPS and 70 OPS+ in the second half while battling his injury. The platoon splits did not make much of a difference, as his stats were quite similar against both lefties and righties.

When talking about Mullins' struggles, it is appropriate to mention his subpar arm strength which has hampered his center field abilities since his debut. His arm strength has certainly improved over the years but his arm remains a liability as he ranked in the 17th percentile in arm value according to Baseball Savant. Fortunately, he is often paired with Austin Hays in left field who has one of the better outfield arms in the game which hopefully evens each other out on a game-by-game basis.

The Verdict

Ultimately, Cedric Mullins is a special talent in Baltimore and had some special moments in a special season for the Orioles. Unfortunately, Cedric was also not-so-special in moments where the Orioles needed him which puts a bit of a damper on his overall season. The stats suggest that Mullins was the epitome of a league-average player and Orioles fans expect better than average after his breakout season in 2021.

As far as a grade is concerned, many teachers will tell you that "C" is an average grade and that average work gets a C. Mullins certainly put in an average season all things considered but there are plenty of reasons that a C also does not feel appropriate.

For one, the signing of Aaron Hicks and the emergence of young outfielders such as Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad threatened Mullins' role as an everyday center fielder and that threat will continue into next season. Also, Mullins was an above-average player before injuries derailed his season.

Finally, this season would not have been what it was without Mullins' heroics on May 12th and August 13th. For those reasons, I give Mullins a slight bump from the C line and I may be a bit generous by pushing him a couple of spots for a final grade of B-.