Sunday, May 16, 2021

Orioles Victory Card Number 16: An early look at the Orioles MVP race

 Baltimore Orioles Victory Number 16: 4-1 over the Boston Red Sox

2019 Bowman Platinum Cedric Mullins

I can't help but feel the O's have been waiting for me to post before they win their next game. Their last victory was literally a week ago and I haven't updated the site since then. That's on me. Sorry about that O's fans. It hasn't helped that they've run into a couple of pretty good teams from New York. The Mets swept them in a short two-game series and now the Yankees are on the brink of a three-game weekend sweep of the Birds.

The O's have come close. In the first game against the Mets they led 2-1 heading into the ninth after another strong start by John Means. Unfortunately, the normally reliave Cesar Valdez couldn't lock it down and they lost on a walk-off fielder's choice by Patrick Mazeika who accomplished their rare feat of garnering two game-winning RBI before before picking up his first major league hit.

Just the other night, they once again led late in the game, this time the seventh inning at home. The victim was Travis Lakins who left a pitch out over the plate and pinch hitter Gio Urshela deposited a three-run homer in the stands to turn a 4-2 lead for the Orioles into a 5-4 defeat. Bummer.

They are still struggling to hit consistently, although Trey Mancini is rounding into 2019 shape. The starting pitching outside of Means is wildly unreliable and the bullpen is starting to show some wear after heavy usage through the first 39 games of the season. Still, there have been some bright spots in the line-up, and despite it being less than a third of the way through the season, I figured it's time to highlight some of the early contenders for MVP for the ballclub.

1. John Means: 4-0, 1.21 ERA, 53 K, 10 BB, 52 IP, 351 ERA+, 2.91 FIP, .712 WHIP

He has been the definition of an ace pitcher. What's an ace? It's the pitcher that goes out and gives the team a chance to win no matter what the circumstances are or who the opponent is. That's exactly what Means has done this year. He's made 8 starts this year and has surrendered more than two runs only once, three in five innings against the Mariners on April 13th, while giving up one or zero runs in six of his starts. 

He has gone at least six innings in six of his starts, including his last five in a row. Four times he's pitched seven innings or more and he's been fairly efficient with his pitches, topping out over 100 only twice, with one of those being the 113-pitch no-hitter against the Mariners.

Coach Brandon Hyde skipped him in the rotation this week in order to manage his innings a bit, why burn him out early or risk an injury this year? With a little more offensive support, the O's have scored three or fewer runs in five of his starts, he could be flirting with the idea of a 20-win season. That would be something.

The weird thing is, that his underlying numbers aren't that far off from his career averages, which indicates he could sustain this a bit longer. His strikeout rate (28%) is a little higher than his career average (21.6%) but as far as batted ball rate his line drives/flyballs/groundballs rates are all in line with what he'd done over parts of four seasons. He most likely won't maintain a .152 batting average against, but his career mark of .218 is still below major league average. 

2. Cedric Mullins: .316/.379/.520 6 HR, 12 RBI, 1.9 WAR

The most surprising part of of Mullins' bounceback season is the .352/.407/.537 he is slashing against left-handed pitching. Formerly a switch-hitter, Mullins abandoned hitting from the right due to a lack of success at the major league level (.147/.250/.189). It was a switch he had contemplated for some time due to the effort it took to work on his right-handed swings. After finally committing to it in the off-season, the payoff has been tremendous.

With a short compact swing, he's able to stay on the ball and drive it against southpaws and righties alike. Other teams have to wary about shifting on him too much due to his bunting ability and it's opened up some holes for him.  He's been making solid contact all season (with career highs in average exit velocity (87.6 MPH) and line drive percentage (40.7%). Mullins has also already set career highs in hits (48), doubles (11), home runs (6) and RBI (12). 

The fact that he is hitting left-handers so well allows Coach Hyde to keep him and his defense in centerfield every day and shift Austin Hayes over to left field. That puts two pretty good defensive outfielders in the game at the same time which should have a positive effect on the pitching staff. Mullins defense approaches the elite level, he is currently second in range factor as a center fielder (Oakland's Ramon Laureano is first) and first in defensive putouts.

3. Adam Plutko: 1-0, 1.27 ERA, 21.1 IP, 14 K, 9 BB, 339 ERA+, 2.68 FIP, 15 games

For a pick-up that came at the tailend of Spring Training, Plutko has been a savior for the Orioles bullpen. With non-Means starters routinely struggling to get through the fifth inning the O's have needed someone to step in and work the middle innings effectively. Plutko has been that reliever. His 15 appearances is third on the team, trailing only lefties Tanner Scott and Paul Fry, but his 21.1 innings pitched leads all relievers by a comfortable margin. 

He's allowed just one earned run over his last eleven appearances and just three runs total over the seasons. His inherited runners scored rate is a little lofty at 47%, but he's been put in some tight spots. In seven appearances he's come into the game with two or more runners on base. Three times he's wiggled out of those jams without allowing a run at all. 

A lot of his success can be pointed to the fact that he is getting opponents to hit the ball on the ground. Throughout his career roughly 30% of the balls put into play off of his pitches were grounders. This season his ground ball rate is 42.4%. Needless to say that plays well in Camden Yards. Less fly balls mean less home runs and his HR rate is 1.2% this year compared to 5.0% over his career. 

Could the O's move him into the starting rotation due to his success? Possibly. He does have a starter's pedigree where he worked out of the rotation for most of his time in Cleveland. Doing so, however, would remove a vital piece of the bullpen from Coach Hyde. It's more likely Plutko will get dealt to a contender sometime this summer if he keeps up his success. 

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