Don’t get hung up on last night’s massacre in St. Louis; the offense has actually not been a hot mess lately. Over the last week, the team is hitting .316 with an .878 OPS. Several players who started the season ice-cold—Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays, Trey Mancini—are heating up. Especially so is Jorge Mateo, .304 with a .903 OPS in his last seven games. Is the talented but perpetually fringey prospect finally cementing a place on the Orioles as an everyday infielder? (A: All signs point to yes.)
It’s hard to believe, because Mateo is just 26 and has only 140 MLB games under his belt, but the once-hyped prospect has been in professional ball since 2012. After signing a minor-league free agent deal at the age of 17, Jorge Mateo spent five years as a Yankees farmhand, working his way through the Dominican Summer League, the Gulf Coast League and the farm system before getting flipped to Oakland for Sonny Gray. Three more years later he’d been traded again: this time to San Diego. Just over a year later, in late summer 2021, he was DFA’d and picked up by the Orioles, his fourth association in eight years. For a former top-20 prospect, it was a precipitous fall. For an Orioles team starved of infield talent, it was a coup: a low-risk and potentially high-reward move for a player whose talent was always undeniable if the results weren’t.
When it comes to the eye test, Mateo is a no-brainer: he’s got that “toolsy” thing scouts love, he can throw, he’s blazing fast, he plays with heart and intensity. The issue has always been the bat: can Mateo get on base enough to keep his name in the lineup every day? In eight minors seasons, the results were rarely great. He slashed .267/.325/.422 with over a strikeout per game (714 K’s in 702 G). He had just two minors season with an OPS above .750, in Double-A in 2017 and an .844 mark in Triple-A in 2019. Not numbers that jump off the page, exactly.
But is Jorge Mateo finally breaking out of his soft-hitting cocoon in 2022? From one perspective, no: his 2022 season slashline of .242/.279/.364 in 99 ABs is almost comically similar to his MLB career one (in parts of two seasons) of .238/.280/.364 in just 140 games.
Yet a few things do look genuinely different and improved. Mateo still has played more MLB games with San Diego than Baltimore (79 to 61), but these days he’s getting regular at-bats like he never has before in his career. He’s effectively the Orioles’ everyday shortstop, and the position is his to lose. Jorge Mateo is finally getting his MLB audition.
What his small-sample-sized MLB numbers also conceal is a tale of two cities. Mateo’s hitting with San Diego was indeed offensive: a .195 average and a puny 51 OPS+. But in parts of two seasons with Baltimore, he’s essentially an average hitter, not a Chris Owings-like hole in the lineup, with a .262 average and a 98 OPS+. Last season, Mateo hit .280 with a 104 OPS+ in 32 games. A perfectly average bat looks just fine given all the other stuff he’s bringing to the table: 98th percentile foot speed, with nine stolen bases (just one behind Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez), above-average glovework at shortstop (1 Out Above Average, says Statcast), and a team fourth-best 0.9 WAR (behind only Mullins, Hays, and Santander).
He’s also making good, sustained contact. His spray chart shows hits to all fields, his expected batting average is an impressive .291, ranking in the 79th percentile of all hitters, and his sweet spot percentage, 54.3, is the best of his career. His hard-hit percentage climbed 3 percentage points and he’s hitting a lot of line drives (43%) compared to the league average (24.7%). He has a seven-game hit streak, the longest of his career.
Now, let’s be clear about Mateo’s weaknesses: he can be prone to the TOOTBLAN, trying to stretch singles into doubles. He’s not a big power guy, with a below-average .121 ISO and a spray chart showing only three warning-track balls this season. His K% of 28.6% is about five points higher than league average, and he rarely walks. (His 4.4 BB% exactly half of the MLB average.) This much is completely as advertised back when the Orioles picked him up. They’ll never turn him into a patient hitter, but he has the potential to make some improvements. Last season, his first for Baltimore, Mateo’s K/BB numbers were better: 24% and 6%, respectively. If he can get back down to those levels—and he might, because his 2022 numbers were deflated by an early cold streak—an everyday role will be undeniable for him.
For a guy who couldn’t crack the majors for eight seasons, 2022 is looking like a real coming out party for Jorge Mateo. An “everything” player who can hit, throw, field, and run, he’s also been a part of some of the Orioles’ most exciting moments (the most exciting?) this season. With the ability to get on base, his speed is a “game-changing” factor and his zest is just fun to watch. Mateo will need to cut down the K’s and increase the walks to be sustainable as a regular player. But so far, he’s proving his statistical value to the team and succeeding in the role of spark-plug and speedster. He’s hitting well, and it may not be an accident. Jorge Mateo has a firm grasp on the role of the Orioles’ everyday shortstop.