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Jorge Mateo may not be hitting, but his glove is making him impossible to bench

Offensively bad but defensively brilliant, Mateo could get his act together at the plate if he could be more selective.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

You probably know this, but a quick refresher: WAR is that funny composite statistic based on runs: the runs you drive in + the ones you produce on the base paths + the ones you save in the field, all divided by how many runs it takes for a team to achieve a win. (There’s a little more to calculating WAR than that, but it’s the basic idea.) All of this boils down to WAR, or the number of wins you’re worth to your team as an individual.

Statheads assign meaning to WAR as follows. If you’re worth 0-1 wins over the course of a single season, you’re disposable.

Between 1-2 wins: utility player.

2+: starter.

5+: All-Star material.

8+: rarified air—an MVP.

Last year’s Orioles featured just three players with WARs over 3: Cedric Mullins (5.7), John Means (3.8), Austin Hays (3.1). The 2019 team, four: John Means (4.5), Jonathan Villar (4.3), Trey Mancini (3.7) and Hanser Alberto (3.4).

Sixty-six games into 2022, and there are seven players poised for 3+ WAR over the course of the season: Cionel Pérez, Jorge López, Trey Mancini, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, Ramón Urías—and Jorge Mateo. Mateo currently ranks as the Orioles’ third-most valuable player in 2022, worth 1.5 WAR, which equates to 3.7 WAR over a full season.

Maybe that’s surprising for a guy batting just above the Mendoza line. Nobody would mistake Jorge Mateo for a top-of-the-order bat. His .214/.249/.344 slash line is, well, ugly.

But when it comes to his defense, it’s a whole different story. The eyeball test and the analytics agree in this case. Mateo will make a play like this one, from Tuesday night. And the advanced data will back it up: Mateo leads the league in range factor, defensive runs saved (11), defensive WAR, and double plays turned.

All told, he’ll probably save the Orioles 28 runs over the course of the season. Among qualifying shortstops, that’s the best mark in MLB. At 7.6 defensive runs above average, he’s the second-most valuable shortstop in baseball, behind only Houston’s Jeremy Peña.

But if the defensive stats are flashy, the offensive ones are unfortunate. Fangraphs ranks him at -6.7 offensive runs above average, the second least-valuable hitting shortstop in the majors.

Crudely, if Mateo loses you 6.7 runs as a hitter and gains you 7.6 as a defender, what is he worth? An average shortstop, more or less.

Which is really kind of a shame. Because he’s so talented, and because when Mateo makes contact, it’s been solid. His batted-ball data shows promise: in barrel percentage, Mateo ranks 15th of 30 shortstops and the average distance on his batted balls is the fourth-highest of any shortstop. His sweet spot percentage is 42.5%, best of any shortstop.

In other words, when Jorge Mateo gets bat to ball, noise, distance and good outcomes often follow.

The trouble is in not getting bat to ball. Where Mateo really lets himself down are the controllable outcomes: strikeouts and walks. At 32.5% and 3.9%, respectively, Mateo has the worst strikeout and walk percentages of any shortstop in baseball. He sees 3.72 pitches per at-bat, compared to Anthony Santander’s 4.18 and Adley Rutschman’s 4.22. Whatever O’s hitting coaches are preaching, it cannot be this.

Stop me if I’m being Captain Obvious, but in Mateo’s case it seems like O’s hitting coaches just need to keep preaching patience: Mateo needs to hone his batting eye and choose his pitch. The strategy has worked so far for Santander and Ryan Mountcastle, two sluggers who have both lifted their BB% in 2022 and seen good things happen in the power department.

Over the past week, Mateo is on a mini hot streak of sorts, hitting .250 with two walks in 18 plate appearances (hey, it’s a lot better than 3 walks in 84 PA’s over the past month). Yes, these were all singles, but that’s OK—Mateo can show zero power and still be a worthwhile investment. Again, above all, he has to walk more and cut down on the strikeouts. The average shortstop strikes out between 18-20% of the time. With a 32.5% mark right now, Mateo still has his work cut out for him.

One small ray of hope I’d point to, though: the defensive brilliance Mateo has shown all year appears to be the product of regular playing time. Mateo did not put up these numbers in his short stints with San Diego or NYY. Prior to this, he’d had just a full season’s worth of games at shortstop and there, he was graded -11 in defensive runs saved per year. From there to a +12 rate in 2022 is a complete turnaround.

So the same thing could hold true at the plate. If consistent at-bats helps the bat go—not even from bad to great, like his glove did, but just from bad to OK—Mateo will be a player worth keeping around. Watch the strikeouts and walks—these will be key to assessing his progress. Frustrating as he can be, Jorge Mateo is a player worth keeping an eye on.