You can’t teach fast.
Jorge Mateo possesses speed that teams—and fans—fawn over. It’s the type of speed that makes every ground ball an exciting play, and a skillset that can make a difference late in a close game.
The Orioles knew Mateo was fast when they claimed him off waivers at the beginning of August. The Yankees knew he was swift when they pegged him as their shortstop of the future back in 2016. Oakland knew he was quick when New York sent him in a package for Sonny Gray, and San Diego was aware of the speed when they swapped him for a player to be named later before last season.
Mateo knows that speed alone will not keep him in the majors. Fortunately, in the 20 games since he arrived in Baltimore, Mateo has done more than run. He’s hit.
Prior to last night’s game, Mateo held a .338 batting average in orange and black. His four stolen bases are nice, but 24-for-71 has everyone thinking Mateo could have a place in Baltimore moving forward.
Sure, it’s only twenty games, but Mateo commands attention. His defensive versatility adds an additional level of intrigue. Mateo has played all three outfield spots, but Baltimore has penciled the 26-year-old into the infield out of necessity.
Mateo has looked serviceable at second, shortstop and third base with Baltimore. His ability to play multiple positions has kept his name in the lineup and that trend could continue into next season. Mateo profiles well as a utility man that plays almost anywhere and can enter late in a game.
Any player that bounces between franchises like that has potential and flaws. Mateo has failed to hit consistently at the major league level. He batted just .207 over 93 plate appearances with San Diego this season.
That average stings, but it gets worse. His on base percentage sat just a touch higher at .285. Mateo absolutely refuses to take a walk. Entering Tuesday, he had just two free passes in 74 plate appearances. With speed like that, who wants to walk?
I like to think of Mateo as the anti-D.J. Stewart. Stewart is known for his patient approach and ability to get on base, and Mateo does not walk at all. Mateo plays several positions well, while Stewart struggles to hold his own in a corner outfield spot. Stewart may rate a touch quicker than he looks, but no one has ever mistaken him for Usain Bolt.
The two do have one thing in common— both will audition for a future role this September. I wrote back in May that Stewart was running out of time with the organization. Earlier this week, Tyler Young suggested that Stewart was in danger of being deemed surplus to requirements.
Mateo’s versatility provides him an additional boost when narrowing down a roster to 26 players. Every club needs a utility man, and I’d imagine everyone is okay seeing the Santo Domingo native on the roster over Pat Valaika.
Ramón Urías, Jahmai Jones and Kelvin Gutierrez are also auditioning for playing time next season. Gutierrez has an absolute cannon at third, but it’s difficult to see his bat producing at an MLB level. If Mateo continues to hit, there should be a place in the lineup for him more days than not.
While Mateo’s hot streak may be an outlier, there’s reason to believe he may have better luck in Baltimore. Mateo appeared in 57 games with the Padres this season but only had 93 plate appearances. It’s easy to understand why San Diego used him as a defensive replacement and pinch runner, but Mateo could be benefiting from consistent at bats.
It’s unreasonable to expect a seismic shift in his hitting approach, but Mateo could manage to take a few more pitches at the plate. Last night the righty worked a walk after falling behind in a 1-2 count. Mateo used his speed to draw an errant pickoff attempt at first base. He advanced all the way to third, and eventually scored in the seventh inning. He’s now reached base in 16 straight games.
The Padres DFA’d Mateo because he was out of options. The Orioles cannot stash him in the minors, but they can provide him every opportunity to work things out with consistent at bats in September. There will be a place for him in this lineup—in 2021 and beyond— if he continues to earn his keep at the plate.