Early results show Mullins' lefty merit

CF battle heating up as leadoff candidate opts to abandon switch-hitting

March 3rd, 2021

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The decision made this week to abandon switch-hitting dates back to the days of former Baltimore skipper Buck Showalter. It was in spring 2018, months before Mullins debuted in the big leagues, when Showalter, then in his final year as the Orioles' manager, broached the topic with the young center fielder.

“He basically said, straight up, if I wasn’t able to figure out my right side, then I’d go left-on-left,” Mullins recalled this week. “I was in agreement with him. I felt like he was going to make the best choice for my career, and I was going to work my butt off to do what I need to do to continue to be competitive.”

To that point, Mullins was a .291 hitter with 23 homers left-handed and a .204 hitter with six homers right in his Minor League career. He would hit .225/.290/.342 in 115 big league games over parts of the next three seasons -- .251/.305/.394 lefty and just .147/.250/.189 righty.

From the left side, Mullins was an inconsistent but capable spark plug, as capable of leading the Majors in bunt hits (as he did in 2020) as popping the occasional long home run. From the right side, he was anemic, striking out 30 percent of the time and mustering two extra-base hits in 111 big league plate appearances.

That dichotomy led Mullins to return home to the Atlanta area this winter and seriously consider Showalter’s suggestion. He’d toyed around with it for some time, bringing it up to current Orioles manager Brandon Hyde and general manager and vice president of baseball operations Mike Elias at various points during the past two-plus years. This spring, Mullins arrived at camp after an offseason of committing to the concept. Hyde said the organization “fully supported” his choice to bat solely left-handed, believing it’ll help Mullins maximize his ability.

“The decision was mainly based off the numbers I was putting up throughout the Minors and the time I've had in the big leagues,” Mullins said. “I fully committed this offseason and kept in contact with [the team], telling them how much I was working on it, and what kind of different approaches I was using to get adjusted to it seeing left-on-left.”

A natural lefty, Mullins got something of a late start to switch-hitting, taking it up during his senior year at Brookwood High School in Snellville, Ga. But that means he last faced a left-handed pitcher from the left side of the plate during his junior year of high school, Mullins confirmed recently. He is 26 now. Regaining that familiarity would require repetition, and lots of it.

In that vein, Mullins said he employed several drills this winter to simulate hitting left-on-left: “hitting off the machine a lot, creating a lot of different spins that lefties create, creating different angles,” he said. The immediate results were encouraging. Mullins tripled off the right-field wall against Yankees lefty Jordan Montgomery on Tuesday in what amounted to his first in-game left-on-left at-bat since his teenage years. He added a single off southpaw Tyler Lyons later in the game.

“I felt really comfortable,” Mullins said. “I don’t see it taking that long, if not already feeling that way.”

Going forward, Mullins’ ability to hit lefties could go a long way toward determining whether he forms a de facto platoon with in center field, or earns a firm grip on the O’s center-field job for himself. On paper, the platoon seems a natural fit, and a fine way to get Hays at-bats amid a crowded mix of young Orioles outfielders. But the calculus isn’t quite so simple. The right-handed-hitting Hays hit lefties better than righties in the Minors, but he has showed reverse splits in the Majors, albeit in a small sample:

Hays vs. RHP: .301/.348/.454 in 201 PA
Hays vs. LHP: .194/.239/.343 in 71 PA

Though the Orioles know their best defense features both Mullins and Hays, they also know their best lineup sports Ryan Mountcastle in left and Anthony Santander in right. Their challenge isn’t just finding the best roles for Mullins and Hays, but getting the best versions of both players in those roles once defined. The team and Mullins both believe that future features him swinging left-handed as much as possible.

“It was getting difficult to try to create two different swings,” Mullins said. “Trying to develop my right-hand swing at the highest level, it was challenging and I tried to do the best I could to develop quicker. It just didn’t work out that way.”