Baltimore’s Shortstop Is Making Strides


Jorge Mateo was once one of the top prospects in baseball. An international signing of the Yankees out of the Dominican Republic in 2012, he showed obvious natural talent with blazing speed that allowed him to be valuable on the basepaths and on defense. In 2015, between Single-A and High-A, he stole 82 bases in 111 games. He only hit two home runs in that time but ran up a .278 batting average. His bat was generally considered the least polished part of his game, but he seemed to have a chance at being an all-around contributor in the future. Baseball America ranked him the #1 prospect in the Yankees’ system going into 2016 and #26 in the entire league.

In the years to come, however, his stock would fade as the approach at the plate didn’t seem to develop as hoped. He returned to High-A in 2016 and hit eight home runs but his batting average slipped to .254. Since he only walked in 6.5% of his plate appearances, his on-base percentage was a meager .306. In 2017, at High-A yet again, his walk rate dipped to 5.4% and his strikeout rate climbed from a decent 21.3% to a concerning 26.6%. That helped his batting average drop to .240 and his OBP to .288. He finally got bumped to Double-A and showed some positive strides, walking at a 10.7% clip in 30 games there, leading to a .300 batting average and .381 OBP. The Yanks then included him as one one of the three youngsters they sent to the Athletics in the deadline deal that brought Sonny Gray to the Bronx, alongside Dustin Fowler and James Kaprielian.

Though Mateo finished 2017 strong with his new organization, the concerns about his offense would be renewed the following year. Moved to Triple-A in 2018, he drew free passes in just 5.7% of his plate appearances while getting punched out in 27.3% of them. His .230/.280/.353 batting line led to a wRC+ of just 62. Back to Triple-A in 2019, he had a power breakout when he launched 19 home runs in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but he still walked at just a 5.1% clip and struck out 25.6% of the time.

Going into 2020, Mateo was out of options and still hadn’t made his major league debut. The A’s seemingly had little interest in giving him an active roster spot at that time. Transactions were frozen in March of 2020 when the pandemic put everything on pause, but once the freeze was lifted in June, the very first transaction in the league was Mateo getting flipped to the Padres for a player to be named later. That player was later reported to be outfield prospect Junior Perez.

The Padres kept Mateo on the roster in 2020 but didn’t hand him a regular role, giving him just 28 plate appearances over 22 games. The results weren’t encouraging in that brief time, as he walked in 3.6% of those trips to the plate and struck out in 39.3% of them. He managed to stick on the roster into the next season with the club still valuing his speed and defense, but he walked in just 2.2% of his plate appearances with the Friars in 2021 and struck out at a 29% clip, ultimately getting designated for assignment in August. The rebuilding Orioles put in a claim and put Mateo into 32 games but he finished the year on the injured list due to right lumbar inflammation.

Mateo was exactly the right kind of player for the O’s, who had been terrible for five years at that point and were still waiting for their top prospects to arrive. They could install him as a placeholder until the kids showed up and see if he did anything with the opportunity, with essentially nothing to lose if he failed. They made Mateo their everyday shortstop in 2022 and he showed that he could be a valuable player even with a poor performance at the plate. He did hit 13 home runs last year but the discipline issues were still there. He walked at just a 5.1% clip and was punched out in 27.6% of his appearances. He finished the year with a .221/.267/.379 batting line and 82 wRC+, indicating he was 18% below league average. However, he was on base enough to steal 35 bases. He also earned stellar grades for his glovework at short, including 14 Defensive Runs Saved, 11 Outs Above Average and a 7.4 grade from Ultimate Zone Rating, finishing in the top five among shortstops in each of those categories. The Fielding Bible Awards ranked him as the top shortstop in the league. FanGraphs valued Mateo’s season as being worth 2.7 wins above replacement, even with the subpar offense, while Baseball Reference gave him 3.4.

The O’s received some trade interest in Mateo over the winter, with clubs seemingly intrigued by how he could benefit from this year’s rule changes. The limits on pickoffs and defensive shifts were designed to encourage the exact kind of player that Mateo is, with plenty of speed and athleticism to showcase if given the chance. That appears to have proven true as he’s already swiped 12 bags this year, but Mateo has also seemingly made incredible progress with his long-standing issues at the plate. His 6.7% walk rate is still below league average but an improvement compared to his own track record. Meanwhile, he has struck out in just 20% of his plate appearances so far this year, a few ticks better than league average and far better than anything he had done in recent years.

Andy Kostka of The Baltimore Banner recently spoke to Mateo and co-hitting coach Matt Borgschulte about how they were going for a simplified approach at the plate this year, allowing Mateo to avoid chasing breaking balls so much, which seems to be working. Mateo’s swing rate on pitches outside the zone is 33.9% this year, which is still a bit above the 2023 league average of 31.4% but a big drop from the 39.4% he had last year. He’s also already hit six home runs, almost halfway to last year’s tally of 13. His .304/.353/.565 batting line amounts to an incredible 149 wRC+.

His .328 batting average on balls in play is above this year’s .298 league average, which could perhaps point to some luck-based regression. But it stands to reason that he would have an above-average BABIP since his elite speed allows him to beat out more grounders than other hitters. His new approach also seems to helping him in terms of batted ball metrics so far. His 44.7% hard hit rate is almost 12 points above last year’s 32.9% rate. His 86.9 mph average exit velocity from last year is now 90.1 mph in 2023.

This is all still a sample size of 105 plate appearances in 29 games and it’s probably best not to suddenly decree that Mateo is one of the best hitters in the league. Baseball is a game of adjustments and opposing teams will take notice of his new approach at the plate and alter their plan of attack, which will leave Mateo responsible for reacting to that. Nonetheless, it’s still an incredibly encouraging development since Mateo showed last year that he could be a solid everyday contributor with poor offense. Even if he regresses and ultimately settles somewhere in between this year’s roaring start and last year’s showing, that still makes him a very valuable player.

It’s a great development for the O’s as well, though it may lead to some challenging decisions down the road. Many of the club’s notable prospects are potential future shortstops, including Joey Ortiz, Jordan Westburg and Jackson Holliday. Gunnar Henderson was once seen as the club’s shortstop of the future but has largely been bumped to third base by Mateo’s breakout. It seems likely that, at some point, there will be some kind of infield logjam that needs clearing out.

But that’s the kind of problem that teams dream about, especially coming out of a rebuild. Some of these players could be included in trades that fortify a weaker part of the club’s roster, such as their starting rotation. Mateo already received some trade interest and has likely only increased his value in that market with his hot start this year. Since he’s been in the big leagues since the start of 2020, he came into this season with exactly three years of service time, putting him on track for free agency after 2025. He qualified for arbitration for the first time this past winter, agreeing with the club on a $2MM salary, and will be able to get further raises in the next two winters.

Despite all of those twists and turns with the Yankees, A’s, Padres and now Orioles, Mateo is still just 27 years old, turning 28 next month, meaning he’s set to hit the open market just a few months after his 30th birthday. There would surely be plenty of interest if the O’s market the next two and a half years of a shortstop with a high floor who is seemingly pushing his ceiling up. But the club is right in the mix of the playoff race, currently 22-12 in the early going, seeming more like a legitimate contender as the days go by. If they can keep that up through July, it would make more sense to keep Mateo while he’s thriving and perhaps consider including one of their prospects in a trade instead. It remains to be seen how it will play out, but for now, it seems possible that both Mateo and the O’s are benefitting from a breakout that was a dream a decade ago and seemed dead until very recently.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login