The O’s were down 7-6 to the Yankees last Sunday when Jorge Mateo came up to face lefty Andrew Heaney with a runner in scoring position. Down quickly 0-2, Mateo fouled off six pitches before he blooped a 3-2 curveball ball to right center that tied the game up for the Birds. In total, Mateo saw 12 pitches from Heaney; he squared up pretty much everything. It was the game’s most clutch at-bat.
Earlier this month. CC’s Alex Church captured the excitement that the signing of the former top-30 prospect brought to this team. Mateo has oodles of potential, with top-3 foot speed in the league and the ability to play multiple positions in the infield (plus also all three outfield spots).
But could he hit? Over his first 21 games as an Oriole, Mateo rocketed to a .324 average with 24 hits. With just one home run, he wasn’t flashing a ton of power. But it was way better than the .207/.250/.322 line that landed him in Baltimore in early August.
So, Mateo is awesome now, right? Don’t forget that Tim Beckham seemed like the Messiah when he hit .421 for the Orioles in August 2017. Then again, Tim Beckham couldn’t field, and neither, for that matter, can Pat Valaika, who made 10 starts at shortstop this season. Mateo can, and if we can imagine even J.J. Hardy-like production from him, he’d add value to this team.
Mateo has been cold over the last week, and .324 isn’t a likely baseline for him. So what is?
Mateo’s career at the plate has been up and down. After signing with the Yankees as a 17-year-old prospect, Mateo averaged .267 over eight MiLB seasons with a middling .747 OPS. His best season was a .300/.381/.525 performance in 140 games with Double-A Trenton in 2018.
But after getting shipped to Oakland as part of the Sonny Gray trade, he hit a disappointing .230 in 130 games with Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate, Nashville. In 2019, Mateo looked very good, posting a .289/.330/.504 line in 119 games at Triple-A. But he had a pitiful 2020 with San Diego, hitting .154 in 22 games at the big-league level while dealing with injury. He was around the Mendoza line when the Orioles picked him up off waivers in August.
A troubling indicator of Mateo’s pre-Orioles days: walks and strikeouts. Mateo was striking out about three times more than he walked in 2015 and 2016, and about four times more in 2018 and 2019. His walk rate dropped consistently from 2012-17, and has been below 6% since. Mateo’s strikeouts have been rising consistently since 2015, meanwhile, peaking in 2020 at 39.3% with San Diego.
It’s a little soon to conclude Mateo has figured out the art of strike zone management, but some of his peripherals with Baltimore have been improved. Mateo is walking at a 6.5% rate, the best he’s done since 2018 in Triple-A and striking out less than he has since he’s been in the majors, at around 25%.
Yet in other respects, Mateo is unchanged: he’s seeing the same number of pitches per plate appearance, his chase rate is about usual, and his hard contact is where it usually is.
It also has to be added that Mateo is having good batted-ball luck, with a .366 BABIP these days. So, time to deflate expectations? Tim Beckham Redux?
It’s possible. Mateo’s .283 with a .768 OPS over a month’s worse of games with Baltimore might be both over-inflated (BABIP luck) and under-inflated (he’s struggled recently with back trouble).
To figure out which, what will be crucial to watch going forward are Mateo’s walks and strikeouts, an area he’s always struggled with. It’s an area the Orioles as a team have tried to make a priority in their hitting instruction plans—and with some early signs of success. Mateo is probably Mateo at this point, but there’s also a chance he’s getting swing data with the Orioles and paying attention.
After the Orioles skidded to a 4-24 record in August, any on-field good news has tended to get magnified of late. But having a dynamic, young infield goes a long way to making them watchable. If Jorge Mateo can work on being more selective at the plate, he can fill that need.