Orioles star Cedric Mullins carries rare MVP candidacy for a 100-loss team: ‘What Cedric’s done is special’

On Monday morning, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde texted Cedric Mullins and told his All-Star center fielder to come to Citizens Bank Park late.

Mullins was getting a day out of the lineup, and Hyde didn’t want him taking batting practice, either. He delivered a message he once did to high-impact players when he was a member of the Chicago Cubs’ coaching staff.

“Please come to the ballpark as late as possible,” Hyde told Mullins. “I just want you to get ready to hit around the sixth. Just don’t do anything. Relax. Rest.”

Yet more than four hours before that night’s first pitch, Hyde saw Mullins roaming around the ballpark in full uniform, just as he would otherwise. Such is the consistency of the breakout star, who despite playing for an Orioles team that Wednesday night lost its 104th game of 2021 is among the majors’ most productive players.

He also finds himself within reach of a unique distinction. In the nine decades of modern Most Valuable Player voting, only one player who spent a full season on a 100-loss team has finished in the top five of his league’s final balloting. Mullins has the potential to end a 70-year drought that’s existed since pitcher Ned Garver finished second after winning 20 games in 1951 for the 52-102 St. Louis Browns, who three years later moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.

Mullins won’t come away as the American League’s winner or even finish as high as Garver, who was traded to Detroit in 1952 and never received another MVP vote. Shohei Ohtani’s two-way superstardom for the Los Angeles Angeles and Toronto Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s Triple Crown pursuit have them vying for the honor. But beyond the likely third-place finisher in Blue Jays second baseman Marcus Semien, Mullins is part of a large crop who could round out the top five in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s voting.

Orioles teammates and coaches are adamant he’s deserving of that recognition.

“He definitely is, for everything,” first baseman Ryan Mountcastle said. “Defense, offense, baserunning, the steals, all that. Overall, his game this year has been really good. Some of these guys like Vladdy and Shohei are obviously having amazing years, too, but what Ced’s brought to the table for our team, it’s one of the most impressive seasons I’ve seen.”

In his age-26 season, Mullins entered Wednesday tied for fifth in the AL in FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement and seventh in Baseball-Reference’s edition with 29 home runs, 30 steals and 36 doubles. He and San Diego Padres phenom Fernando Tatis Jr. — a contender for the NL award — are the only major leaguers with at least 25 home runs and 25 steals this season.

Mullins’ next homer will not only make him the Orioles’ first member of the 30-30 club, but put him in company with Mookie Betts and José Ramírez as the only players since 2012 with 30 home runs, 30 steals and 30 doubles in a single season. Betts and Ramírez both did so in 2018, finishing first and third in AL MVP voting around Mike Trout. But both of their teams made the playoffs.

Hyde, who watched an MVP season up close in 2016 when Kris Bryant won the NL award for Chicago, said what Mullins has done in 2021 is “up there” among the best seasons he’s been a part of. He believes the Orioles’ struggles make Mullins’ successes all the more impressive.

“It’s been tough for him because we’ve lost a lot of games,” Hyde said. “A lot of times, he’s facing high-leverage pitchers because we’re down in games late in the game, so for me, he’s had one of the better years offensively that I’ve been around.

“What Cedric’s done is special.”

Mullins, too, admits the circumstances of Baltimore’s season have at times been challenging on him as an individual.

“It takes a lot of focus day in and day out, just in the season in general,” Mullins said. “When you have situations where, you know, things aren’t going our way on what seems like a constant basis, it’s sometimes hard to keep your head in there.”

Added teammate Trey Mancini: “It’s definitely not easier. I don’t know how much harder it is, but I can tell you it’s certainly not easier.”

Yet that makes his ability to overcome it all the more notable. Mancini and Mountcastle both said what’s impressed them most about Mullins’ season is his consistency. It’s a stark shift from two years ago, when Mullins plummeted from his first Opening Day roster back to Double-A.

“As far as people I’ve played with in pro ball at any level, it might possibly be the most consistent season I’ve ever seen,” Mancini said. “From the first at-bat of the season till now — even that first game in Boston, I remember I was like, ‘Wow, Ced looks like a different player.’ Something was just different that day, and it has not stopped.”

Mullins ranks in the AL’s top 10 in several traditional stats such as batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, hits, total bases, doubles, triples, extra-base hits and steals. He is also ranked highly in all-encompassing advanced metrics weighted runs created plus, adjusted OPS+, weighted on-base average and FanGraphs’ win probability added.

Mullins and Ramírez, Cleveland’s third baseman, are the only players in the league’s top five in both of FanGraphs’ statistical rankings for offensive and base running value. He’s put up that production while also playing strong defense in center field. During the Orioles’ previous homestand, Mullins used every bit of his 5-foot-8 frame to rob Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez of a home run, earning MLB’s Play of the Week. He ranks seventh among AL outfielder’s in Statcast’s Outs Above Average while playing the second-most innings in center field of any major leaguer.

“That’s what you want to preach to the young players: ‘Don’t let the ups and downs of the season derail you,’ and he’s done that,” Orioles major league coach Fredi González said. “It’s got to be one of the best seasons I’ve seen in a long time.”

That’s high praise from González. Before joining Hyde’s staff last year, he spent two decades as a coach and manager in the NL and watched six players have seasons deemed worthy of top five MVP finishes, including Giancarlo Stanton winning the award in 2017 on a 77-85 Miami Marlins team.

That year, Joey Votto of the 94-loss Cincinnati Reds finished second in voting, two years after finishing third while the Reds lost 98 games. There have been others who came close to what Garver did, with Fred McGriff and Virgil Truck finishing in the top five of voting in a season in which they were traded away from a team that eventually crossed the century mark. Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. was the AL MVP in 1991 despite Baltimore dropping 95 games.

There have been 111 teams to lose 100 times since modern MVP voting began in 1931, yet Garver is the only one to be recognized as one of his league’s top players despite his team’s failings. Mullins could change that, with the season’s final weeks giving him a chance to earn down-ballot votes against a pool including Ramírez, Houston’s Carlos Correa, New York’s Aaron Judge, Boston’s Xander Bogaerts, Oakland’s Matt Olson and Kansas City’s Salvador Pérez.

“It really, to me, just means that all the hard work that I put in over the course of the last few years and my entire life in general pursuing this sport has been recognized,” Mullins said. “It’s something I feel like every person pursues and the accolades that come with that are just a bonus.”