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Jorge Mateo’s breakout year finally provided the Orioles some stability at shortstop

Between his defensive brilliance and base-stealing prowess, Mateo took major strides in his first full season as a big league starter.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Baltimore Orioles Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since J.J. Hardy’s last game in an Orioles uniform, shortstop has been an ever-revolving door in the O’s lineup. From the (brief) highs of Manny Machado in 2018 to the ensuing roller coaster of mediocrity with the likes of Tim Beckham, Jonathan Villar, Richie Martin and Freddy Galvis, Baltimore featured 13 different starting shortstops between 2018 and 2021.

The 13th player on that list—Jorge Mateo—entered the 2022 season with the starting shortstop job, but with no expectations that he would provide stability at the position. After all, this was the same Mateo who bounced around three organizations before arriving in Baltimore as a waiver claim in August 2021. The same Mateo that played five different positions for the Orioles in 2021.

Those lack of expectations made Mateo’s transformation in 2022 all the more impressive. A season that started with Mateo in legitimate competition with Chris Owings for playing time ended with Mateo being regarded as the best defensive shortstop in all of baseball.

Based on talent alone, perhaps Mateo’s breakout in 2022 shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise. There was a time—while he was coming up in the Yankees’ organization—that Jorge was mentioned in the same breath as Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino in terms of his caliber as a prospect. As a 21-year-old in High-A, Mateo was seen as a Top 30 prospect in all of baseball—ahead of players like Judge, Tim Anderson, Josh Hader and Matt Olson.

When Mateo was traded to the A’s as the centerpiece of a deal that saw Sonny Gray go to the Yankees, it seemed like he was that much closer to his chance at MLB stardom. Fast forward three years later—when Mateo was traded to San Diego for a player to be named later—and it seemed like that window of opportunity had all but closed. Once he arrived in Baltimore, Mateo faced perhaps his last opportunity to make it in the bigs.

Just like the ups and downs he went through on his journey to Baltimore, Mateo’s offensive journey in 2022 was filled with highs and lows. On June 16, our own Andrea wrote that Mateo’s glove had been so good to start that season that he shouldn’t be benched—no matter how bad his hitting was.

At that point, that’s all Mateo was: an elite glove who consistently found himself in the nine spot in the lineup. His constant flirtation with the Mendoza Line didn’t take away from his jaw-dropping plays at short. Early on, his defense seemed like the bright spot Birdland needed to distract from another poor start to the year.

Then, either to keep pace with the rapidly improving team around him or just to prove Andrea wrong, Mateo’s bat suddenly became a weapon to match his speed and defense. Over a stretch of 50 games from June 24 to August 23, became one of the biggest driving forces in a renewed Orioles offense. After struggling to stay above a .200 batting average, Mateo hit .284 with a .886 OPS during that stretch. He collected 22 extra-base hits—including eight HRs— and looked like the type of player that deserved to be hitting third rather than ninth.

Mateo’s two biggest standout performances came in August. In the second game of the month against the Texas Rangers, Mateo almost single-handedly carried the offense. He put up two home runs against the Rangers for his first multi-homer game, all while collecting a career-high 5 RBIs. Then, in the Little League Classic at the end of August, Mateo came up clutch with an eighth-inning, bases-clearing double that proved to be the difference in a 5-2 Orioles win.

Over the last month of the season, Mateo struggled to keep up this offensive output. His batting average after August 23 dipped down to .174, and he collected only eight extra-base hits over his final 36 games of the season. Mateo’s final triple slash of .221/.267/.379 seemed to belie a player who was constantly working to translate his elite physical tools into offensive production. The 13 HRs, 45 total extra-base hits and 50 RBIs Mateo put up in ‘22 all represent massive contributions— especially given Mateo’s career offensive numbers before he arrived in Baltimore.

The one element that was constant in Mateo’s game, along with his defense, was his game-changing speed. Mateo led the American League with 35 stolen bases, becoming the first Oriole to lead the league since Brian Roberts swiped 50 bags in 2007. Mateo partnered with Cedric Mullins to become the best pair of base thieves in all the MLB. At times it felt like Mateo’s mere presence in the lineup made the entire Orioles’ team more dangerous on the base paths.

The overall brilliance of Mateo’s 2022 season is somewhat overshadowed by the egregious snub when it came to selecting the finalists for the American League Gold Glove. The fact that Mateo was not even included in the three finalists (losing out to Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and eventual winner Jeremy Pena) felt like he was still being punished for the national media’s general perception of the Orioles. Still, Mateo’s defensive brilliance did not go completely unnoticed, as he took home the Fielding Bible Award as the best defensive shortstop in all of baseball.

Where Mateo goes from here is still a bit of an enigma. His defense alone should be enough for him to be the everyday shortstop again in 2023. Combine that defense with his dominance on the base paths—as well as the versatility to play around the infield and outfield if needed—and it seems likely that Mateo could stick in Baltimore even as big-time prospects continue to graduate from the minor league ranks.

What remains to be seen is if Mateo can continue to make enough strides as a hitter to remain a long-term, unquestioned starter for the Orioles as the team continues to grow around him. While Mateo may never maintain the levels of hitting we saw in July and August for a full season, he doesn’t have to in order to enjoy a Hardy-esque run at shortstop for the O’s. If the speedster and defensive ace can get to the point of consistently being a .240-.250 hitter with an on-base percentage around .325, he would become the type of all-around weapon capable of pushing the Orioles closer to true contention. If the breakthrough from Mateo in 2022 is anything to go off of, perhaps the best is still yet to come from the O’s shortstop.

Previous 2022 Orioles player reviews: Bruce Zimmermann, Robinson Chirinos, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Nick Vespi/Logan Gillaspie, Spenser Watkins, Rougned Odor, Ryan McKenna, Kyle Bradish, Austin Hays, Keegan Akin, Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander, Jordan Lyles, Bryan Baker, Tyler Wells, Austin Voth

Tomorrow: Dean Kremer