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The Orioles may be afterthoughts, but Cedric Mullins is too good to ignore

Cedric Mullins has been one of the most productive outfielders in baseball in the first half of the season. (Julio Cortez/AP)

BALTIMORE — The scouts rarely came to see Cedric Mullins, at least not at first. When they came to the Snellville, Ga., area, they came to see his high school teammate and current Cincinnati Reds pitcher Lucas Sims. They came to see current New York Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier or Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Austin Meadows down the road in Loganville.

Even if they had wanted to take a look at the future center fielder and all-star candidate for the Baltimore Orioles in those days, they wouldn’t have had much chance. Mullins didn’t make the varsity baseball team at Brookwood High until his senior year.

“It was always super competitive high school baseball,” Sims said. “Cedric was always good, but it was just kind of a depth thing. I guess it also just took him a little bit to break through.

“Once he did,” Sims added, “he was probably our best player.”

This is how Mullins got to the big leagues in the first place, by pushing through relative obscurity and ignoring low expectations to burst into stardom at nearly every stop — by impressing the few scouts, most often from the Orioles, who did come to see a 5-foot-8 kid with little hype around him in junior college, then at Campbell University, then again in the minor leagues.

Those circumstances are also his reality as the 26-year-old breakout star on a rebuilding team that looks a few years away from coalescing into a contender. For that reason, the Orioles operate largely out of the spotlight, afterthoughts in the dramatic American League East. But Mullins is commanding attention anyway.

He has been one of the most productive outfielders in baseball in the first half of 2021. He ranks third among MLB outfielders with 3.2 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs, ahead of guys named Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper and Mookie Betts. Until Fernando Tatis Jr. homered three times in three at-bats Friday night, Mullins had the same WAR as the San Diego Padres shortstop who signed a 14-year extension worth $340 million before the season. Tatis is becoming the face of Major League Baseball. The Orioles, who have had players wearing cutoff Mullins shirts to batting practice every day for weeks, are just hoping someone will notice him enough to add him to the AL all-star team.

Mullins’s .921 on-base-plus-slugging percentage is sixth among big league outfielders, ahead of Judge, Harper and recently Bondsian slugger Kyle Schwarber, and Mullins’s .313 average is ninth in baseball. He is third only to speedy Tampa Bay Rays outfielders Manuel Margot and Brett Phillips and just ahead of annual defensive standout Michael A. Taylor in outs above average, a statistic based on Statcast data that accounts for the number of plays made and their relative difficulty.

“He’s playing at an all-star level. To come as far as he’s come in two years just shows you the work ethic he’s had, the time he’s put in and the adversity that he’s dealt with,” Orioles Manager Brandon Hyde said.

Two years ago, Mullins found himself on the other side of the baseball universe — carrying lofty expectations instead of exceeding them. Four seasons in the minors, including hitting .313 in Class AA Bowie before being promoted in 2018, had convinced the Orioles that Mullins probably was their center fielder of the future — the successor to longtime Oriole and beloved staple Adam Jones.

By late 2018, Jones was passing the symbolic torch, moving to a corner outfield spot so Mullins could take over in center. One memorable day, Jones urged Mullins to lead the Orioles onto the field instead — the center fielder’s job, he said, though for years Jones leading the Orioles onto the field was about far more than just where he stood in the outfield grass.

But Mullins struggled. He hit .235 in 45 big league games in 2018. Given the chance to be the starting center fielder in 2019, Mullins hit .094 in 22 games, lost the job and landed in the minors again for the rest of the season.

“Trying to live up to what [Jones] was able to do for the past 10 years before I got there, it hindered me. But once I was able to let that pass and remind myself that I am a different baseball player than he is and just stay true to what I know how to do, it became a lot easier,” Mullins said.

He went back to his strengths. He leaned on his speed, on the instinctual outfield routes Sims described as “incredible,” on the sneaky power that had always helped the player who didn’t necessarily look the part of a big leaguer become one anyway.

“I don’t pass the eye test typically. I’m not the one who shows up at 6-1, 6-2, however tall you need to be to play this game apparently,” Mullins said. “My individual talents didn’t always show in workouts and stuff like that. I had decent arm strength, but it wasn’t crazy. I take decent BP, but I wouldn’t put a ton of balls over the wall. I run decent times, but I wasn’t that fast. I was always a guy who showed what I could do on the field.”

Entering the 2020 season, Mullins was much better prepared to do that. He hit .271 in 48 big league games. He seemed to be back on track. The most glaring issue was Mullins’s struggles against left-handed pitching. As a switch hitter, Mullins hit .305 from the left side against righties. Against lefties as a righty, he hit .171 with two extra-base hits.

So as the covid-19 craziness subsided and the 2021 season approached, the Orioles suggested Mullins ditch switch hitting — something that would deliver a blow to any player’s pride. In Mullins’s case, it also created a new challenge he hadn’t faced since he started switch-hitting in high school: facing left-handed pitching as a lefty.

“Getting acclimated to it was tough; all of a sudden you face guys that throw 99,” Mullins said. “But they also have really good off-speed. How are you going to adjust? You have to be willing to stay in there.”

His first major league at-bat against a lefty came against Red Sox reliever Josh Taylor. He singled. His next one came against Red Sox reliever Darwinzon Hernandez. He singled, and he singled against Yankees lefty Jordan Montgomery, too — hits against each of the first three big league lefties he faced. How hard could it be?

His next at-bat against a lefty came in the top of the ninth against the New York Yankees and one of the most intimidating lefties of a generation, Aroldis Chapman.

“I was like, okay, got the arm guard, that’s all I need, let’s get in there,” Mullins said. Ultimately, he struck out after fouling off three fastballs, 99, 99, and 101 mph.

“I knew if I could get into the box against a guy like him, I could do this,” said Mullins, who is hitting .315 against lefties this season. He is hitting .311 against righties.

“He’s got quiet confidence. He’s a confident person, but it’s not very external. It’s more so, I’m going to go out and watch what I can do,” Sims said. “Then he goes out and plays to the best of his abilities. And his ability is really good.”

Earlier this month, during the quiet of Orioles batting practice at Camden Yards, Mullins didn’t say a word, just grabbed three baseballs and started juggling. The few Orioles staffers in the dugout turned their eyes to him. An Orioles social media videographer moved to get a better shot. The television cameras that had been pointed at Hyde during his pregame media scrum pivoted to find Mullins instead.

On an otherwise uneventful afternoon, during another lost series for the rebuilding Orioles, no one started out looking for Mullins. He caught everyone’s attention all the same.