05 September 2018

The Orioles are More than Just Mullins

The title, I did not ask for permission from the scout to use that statement, but as I wrote this it felt on the nose.  The last few days the concern over Cedric Mullins riding the pine when the opposing lineup card includes a starting southpaw has reached a fevered pitch.  Worries have arisen on whether the Orioles have firmly concluded that Mullins is a platoon hitter and are gaming their gameday lineup to try to win a game or two.  Others worry that by shielding him from left handed starters that his ability to hit them will not improve.  There are also declarations that Cedric Mullins is better and a more important future piece than either Joey Rickard or John Andreoli.  Therefore, he should not sit for them.

I think the outrage at Mullins sitting is understandable.  It is a frustrating season.  It is particularly hard on anyone who bludgeons themselves with watching every single game.  Mullins is perhaps an important piece of the Orioles future and there certainly is a desire to forget the now and embrace the future.  Play the kids.  We also see this in calls for the Orioles to bring up anyone arguably on their organizational top ten prospects from Norfolk or Bowie.  And, to be clear, this is not outrage from a few folks, but rather broad and consistent disapproval of sitting Mullins.

Buck has been repeatedly asked about Mullins sitting out.  He has noted that Mullins has a nagging hip injury that kept him out of a national game that Buck wanted him to have exposure in.  Buck has also noted that the hip really does not keep Mullins out of the lineup now.  That he wants to see different players in rotations.  Last night, Mullins pinch hit for Andreoli when the left handed starter was replaced by a right hander.  It is clear that the Orioles are putting their thumb down on the scale to expose Mullins to more right handers.  And it does bear a question about whether this is a problem?  Is it dumb as some have said?  Is it indicative of reasons why this club is the worst in baseball?

I think it is important to step back and really think functionally about player development and roster optimization.  I think we all can agree that this season no longer matters with respect to the wins and losses.  That ship sailed a long time ago with respect to the playoffs and more recently with respect to who will get to pick first overall.  Let us tackle the developmental perspective first.

One concern is that by shielding Mullins from starting left handers that it will hurt his ability to develop that skill.  Here is a crude look (i.e., OPS) of his minor league career.
OPS vs. Left vs. Right
2015 .549 .765
2016 .632 .831
2017 .604 .863
2018 .700 .847
Overall, Mullins has roughly 400 PA against left handers in the minors and has improved slightly on them, arguably.  It is pretty much the only real knock on him.  This season in the majors, Mullins has faced lefthanders 21 times, striking out 9 times and managing three hits.  It has not been pretty and it never really have been pretty for him with respect to that aspect of his game.

Functionally, if Showalter is sitting Mullins against left handed starters (not left handed reliever who have simpler pitch mixes) the rest of the month then that means that Mullins will likely miss out on about four or five left handed starting pitchers.  About 15 PA at most against lefties.  So, developmentally, does Mullins facing lefthanders in those 15 PA have a meaningful impact on his future performance against them?  I have a hard time seeing that it would have any meaningful impact.  Developmentally, I do not see the argument there as reasonable or certain in that Mullins must be in the lineup.

Developmentally, is there a benefit to putting Mullins in batting situations where he is more likely to hit off of a right hander?  There certainly is an argument in player development that when you expose a young prospect to the Majors that you want them to be in situations where success is more likely and to control adversity.  This is a long held notion and it was one that the Mariners used with Adam Jones in his two seasons there and something the Orioles emphasized with Jones at the beginning of his first season in Baltimore.  Really, it serves two purposes.  One, you are maximizing a player's confidence by having him experience success.  Two, the season is long and tiring, especially for a rookie who is acclimating and a breather here and there is thought of as a good thing to help keep the player from burning out.

This leads to another point.  This is the longest Cedric Mullins has ever played baseball.  He was done in August in 2015 with some time in the instructional league.  In 2016, his professional games doubles to 124 and he also had some instructional league time.  Injuries kept Mullins to 76 games in 2017 and he was left off the instructional roster as well as no ball in the Arizona Fall League.  This year, he has played in 131 games and is likely to play another 12-15 more.  This is his longest season and this last stretch is fairly demanding physically and emotionally on a rookie.  

The Orioles did not do this with Austin Hays last year with Showalter desperate for outfield help.  Hays played daily, logged 20 games in September and finished with a 217/238/317 split.  Most folks remember Hays at his highwater mark with a 316/350/526 split on September 18th, but he crashed.  He went for 7 for 41 to end the season with one walk and 11 strikeouts.  Some thought that he was rushed and over exposed too soon.  In turn, that it led to some problems coming into the season that took him all year to straighten out.  It should also be noted that Buck had repeatedly asked for Duquette to promote Hays since early August, but that Duquette refused for fear of overexposing Hays.  Maybe that perspective cemented and they are imposing that on Buck or Buck now agrees or that outside of a playoff race that it really does not matter anymore.

Besides needing a blow now and then, it should be restated that Mullins is getting treatment for his hip every day.  It is not healed.  The injury was severe enough that he was shelved in a game Buck wanted him to play and is something that is nagging Mullins.  That injury may notprevent Mullins from playing, but it certainly would be something a team would want to manage.  Holding him out against lefties and concentrating on right handed hitting is sensible if you have to maximize return on his experiences.

Now, is sitting on a bench of any value to a player?  Often you hear about a young player being sent down to get regular at bats, to stay sharp.  You also hear about veterans complaining about playing time and needing more plate appearances to stay sharp.  We also know that players who pinch hit tend to do worse doing that than when they play regularly.  Those are all true and it is also true that that reality is something used to pull a punch.  

On top of that, we also hear anecdotally about players learning about approach and other subtleties by sitting next to a veteran or a coach during a game.  Managers sometimes order players to watch a game with a specific person on the team in order to learn things.  Showalter did this with Dylan Bundy during his first taste of the Majors.  The Yankees did this with Derek Jeter when he broke in.  It is common and an accepted notion in development.  Does it actually work?  I do not know, but mentoring has been shown to be quite effective outside of baseball and some think that mentoring explains how some managers tend to outperform expectations regularly.

This gets me to my last point and what I noted earlier: the Orioles are more than just Cedric Mullins.  As I developed this article in my head, I talked to a scout who focuses on minor leaguers.  To paraphrase him, he said that there should not be a controversy here.  There are several balls in the air that the organization needs to sort out and in the process of doing that, they can give Mullins an ideal introduction to the Majors.  This introduction focuses on him building off his success in the minors, repeating what he did well down there, but not overly challenging him to make him question his approach.  On top of that, they are letting him taste adversity without letting that adversity dominate the narrative.

This, compared to the offseason, is the ideal time to get a few more looks on Joey Rickard and John Andreoli to figure out just what they have in them and whether they should be protected this winter on the forty man roster.  Rickard and Andreoli both fit a needed role, which is a fourth outfielder who can cover all three positions in a pinch.  They also complement Mullins if indeed he cannot improve upon his performance against left handers next year and needs some platooning.  This failed season provides the opportunity for the club to get a better look to better discern whether they have answers currently on the roster for positions that need to be filled beyond Mullins or whether they will need to explore the market for solutions.

The team is not Cedric Mullins.  Mullins' development is important, but there are other parts of this roster that need to be determined.  Having Mullins sit is reasonable and emphasizing his success is also reasonable.

This situation reminds me of Zach Britton sitting in the bullpen as the Orioles faced an elimination game against Toronto.  Buck failed.  Britton was rested.  He had one of the best seasons in MLB history.  Buck instead chose to send in a shaky Ubaldo Jimenez into extra innings in a tie game instead of tapping his left arm for Britton and the Orioles paid.  Buck had no explanation for his failure.  At least, nothing that made any sense.  Showalter was hammered for that decision and deserved it.

In this case, we have plentiful reasons why sitting Mullins against left handed starters makes sense.  We have established practices that are not easily disproven as the save rule practice is easily disproven with the above Britton scenario.  For me to step beyond all these reasons, to be audacious and contradict the organization's choice in this instance, I need proof.  I need evidence.  I do not have that.  In fact, all my evidence declares that the objections do not really hold water.  It is hard to see how this impairs Mullins' development and that is really what it comes down to.

Yes, I understand that this season has been terrible.  I understand that fans want to see the kids play.  They want to take solace in the future and forget the present in the form of easily identifiable pieces that will likely have importance in the future.  But, the organization is not Mullins.  They have other questions to answer and playing every day through the end of the season may not even be good for Mullins.


Pip said...

Well, you convinced me. I have been annoyed that Buck was wasting his time with Andreoli instead of letting Mullins play. Your article is well-considered. I have little faith in Buck-or in whomever is making roster choices- these days, but I’ll accept this decision.
As an aside, do you prefer Andreoli or Rickard? Any idea why an 8-year minor league veteran who is older than Rickard generates such interest?

Jon Shepherd said...

Andreoli and Rickard have similar underlying metrics in the minors with Andreoli playing better defense. Rickard does not seem capable of improving his routes beyond what they are now. So, I figure they are seeing what Andreoli can do and figuring out if either of them will help fill out the club next year. So far, Andreoli looks terrible at the plate and shown some flashes in the field. The age thing is not really an issue. You could easily see Rickard not getting playing time in the majors either except he was a Rule 5 who flashed potential at times.

Unknown said...

Well gee, now I want them to play him even less...

Unknown said...

Orioles would bench Markakis against tough lefties his first season. Same reason: why have him get blown away early on in his Major League exposure...

Matt Kremnitzer said...

In his first full season, Nick Markakis played in 147 games and faced lefties in 130 PA. That's still a lot of playing time.

Unknown said...

I think it's also as much about physically protecting the smallish and injury prone Mullins. Why burn him out early when the O's aren't competing. CF is a very physically taxing and risky position to play. I remember seasons past when AJ looked like he was about to bust out on what we hoped would be that breakout MVP season, only to have it dashed by an injury while crashing into a wall or diving for a tough catch.