Last night’s eight-run explosion aside, the Orioles’ offense hasn’t been worth writing home about lately; let’s talk fielding instead.
For the length of this season, defense has been one of the clear separators between these Orioles and their less successful iterations of the recent past. In 2022, this team has saved 37 runs in the field. The 2021 team actually lost 30 runs. Before that, in 2019: 53 runs squandered.
To anyone who follows this team closely, this should come as no surprise. Compare Pedro Severino blocking curveballs behind the plate with Adley Rutschman, the range and agility of DJ Stewart in left field with a healthy Austin Hays, or the lumbering Mark Trumbo in right field versus a rangy Kyle Stowers.
The biggest change of all, however, has come at shortstop. Which makes sense, because since taking the franchise reins in winter 2018, Mike Elias & Co. have made up-the-middle drafting a high priority. To wit: Adley, GUNNAR HENDERSON, Joey Ortiz, Jordan Westburg, Collin Burns, Jackson Holliday, Silas Ardoin, and the list goes on. This is good, because ever since J.J. Hardy retired in 2017, shortstop has been something of a wasteland, manned by the likes of Pat Valaika, Andrew Velazquez, Richie Martin and Freddy Galvis.
Then there’s Jorge Mateo, a waiver wire pickup who, finally given the chance to play on regular days in 2022, has turned into one of the best defensive shortstops in the game.
This is doubly gleeful news for the Orioles, because when he signed with Baltimore, while fast and talented, no one could have known just how good his glove was. One lukewarm scouting report from 2016 describes Mateo as having “fair hands,” with a bad tendency to play balls on tough hops, and rating his overall fielding tool to eventually iron out to “average.”
Six years later, Jorge Mateo is a frontrunner for the AL Gold Glove at shortstop (i.e. the crème de la crème of Gold Gloves). Judging by defensive stats, this should come down to a three-man race between Mateo and two others: Houston rookie Jeremy Pena and Boston’s Xander Bogaerts.
According to data from FanGraphs, MLB BaseballSavant, and Baseball Reference, it’s close. Mateo ranks first among AL shortstops in defensive WAR (11.2), followed by Pena (10.0) and Bogaerts (9.1). He’s tied for the lead in Outs Above Average (8, with Pena), and second in defensive runs saved (13 for Mateo to Pena’s 16, with Bogaerts lagging behind, with just 2.) Mateo is second in range factor behind Chicago’s Elvis Andrus, who otherwise doesn’t grade out strongly. (BaseballSavant gives Pena a slight edge with a higher success rate than Mateo’s, although the two are virtually tied when it comes to errors.) Mateo leads the AL in double plays turned, with 81, and ranks third in UZR, behind Amed Rosario (7.4) and Bogaerts (4.6). And in what BRef calls “throwing runs above average” (i.e. how much arm strength contributes to making an out), Mateo ranks first in the AL.
One thing to note: earlier in the season this race was not even close. When I wrote about Mateo’s defense in June, he was leading the AL in just about all of these categories, and was on track to save the Orioles 28 runs over the course of the season. That number would be such an outlier (again, Pena leads everyone right now with 16) that it seems the explanation is that Mateo started unreasonably hot in the field, and over the season, his numbers went down as others caught up in making plays showing range and difficulty.
Predictions for how this may play out overall? Other factors often at work in these races might include team visibility, player name recognition, and the player’s own flashiness on the field. Team-wise, this is a rare (recent) year where being an Oriole isn’t necessarily hurting Jorge Mateo, even though the Astros just clinched the AL Central and Boston is Boston (still, it’s hard to think their downward slink to the cellar could be working to Xander Bogaerts’ favor this year).
As to name-brand recognition, Bogaerts is, of course, a four-time All Star, and neither Mateo nor the rookie Pena are likely to collect any other hardware this season. But in Bogaerts’ case, I suspect the old cop-out rationale of “It’s not his year” will hold sway. He’s had better years, and so, obviously, have the Sox.
Finally, the flashiness factor, which works to lure voters away from valid metrics and towards the “eye test.” Take a look at some Pena footage, in case you’re not familiar with his body of work. The definitive highlight reel of Bogaerts’ and Mateo’s seasons are yet to be made, but here’s some work from that Boston guy. And as for Mateo, by now, you know he can do it all in the field. His range is enormous, as befits a guy with his sprint speed, and as evidenced in this ridiculous over-the-shoulder grab he made on Tuesday night. The arm strength is top shelf, too, as shown in this play. He also plays with immense passion and is a difference maker on the basepaths.
Could soft factors like this push Mateo to the first Orioles Gold Glove since Manny Machado in 2015? My glasses are admittedly orange-colored, but I think there’s a strong chance.