It was easy to overlook Jorge Mateo in 2023. Gunnar Henderson arrived and, well, kept arriving all season. A passel of prospects were called up from Triple-A, including infielder Jordan Westburg, who turned out to be sure-handed and a tough out at the plate, earning himself lots of late-season at-bats, too.
For Jorge Mateo, the story of 2023 can be most clearly told in one stat: Games Started. He started 24 games at shortstop in May, but that number went down as the season went on—18 starts in June, 10 in July, 12 in August, and 11 in September/October. Another version of the same story: in 2022 Mateo had 533 total PA’s on the season but just 350 in 2023.
This may have had something to do with the small matter of his hitting.
Over 116 games this year, Jorge Mateo slashed .217/.267/.340 with a .607 OPS. He struck out 82 times in 318 AB’s, and had just 23 extra-base hits. Of all Statcast’s major offensive categories, there’s just one he excels at: baserunning run value. (He does excel at it, though, ranking in the top 90% in foot speed.)
The shame was, he was so massively good in April—perhaps the best month of hitting he’s had in his career—that you thought maybe he’d finally blossomed into the everyday player the Yankees dreamed of back when he was their No. 1 prospect back in 2016. Over 22 games in April, Mateo posted a slashline of .347/.395/.667 and a 1.062 OPS. He hit six home runs and slashed five doubles.
Hence the shame: he’d hit one more home run all year. And after racking up 48 total bases in April, he’d have just 60 over the rest of the season. How do you catch lightning in a bottle? I don’t know. But neither, it seems, does Jorge Mateo.
It’s not that Mateo’s offensive numbers got measurably worse than last season. In 2022, he did much the same thing, slashing .221/.267/.379 and OPS’ing .646. Worse walk numbers, in fact, but more power. Over four seasons, his slashline is .223/.270/.363 with a .633 OPS.
It seems fair to say that we know who Jorge Mateo is at this point. The question is: does his defense make up for it?
It certainly did in ’22, when he was a 3.4 WAR player and should have taken home the AL Gold Glove at shortstop, if anyone had been paying attention. But the numbers said different in ’23: from a +9 DRS to -1 (BaseballSavant), from 2.4 dWAR to 0.8 (BaseballReference), advanced metrics told us he was just an average fielder.
Despite this, it can’t be denied that Mateo plays a dynamic style of baseball and was a trusted defensive replacement all season. Wherever Brandon Hyde asked him to play, he did. And often he did so in spectacular fashion.
That included robbing home runs in center field, where he’s played a total of nine games in his career:
Or going deep in the hole to show off his range at his natural position:
Mateo also, lest ye forget, put up four hits in a doomed offensive effort in Game 2 of the ALDS. It was a little too late to be helpful, but it was nice.
Should the Orioles keep Mateo on the roster next season as a backup?
This is hard. And it’s not going to get easier for Jorge Mateo to find playing time with Jackson Holliday, the minor league player of the year, knocking on the door at the same position. It’s hard to imagine a large role for the righty speedster on the Orioles next year, but he might be worth keeping on as a super-utility guy who can slot in anywhere on the diamond, including center field.
The argument for doing so goes something like this. The hits are so rare, but consider that in the new bigger-bases environment, Mateo’s baserunning value has only increased. Between hits and walks, he reached base one-third less in ‘23 than he the year before, but he stole basically the same number of bases (32 to 35, with 5 caught stealing). Basically, if he reaches base, it’s an automatic double. You could do worse.
He’s also certainly a nice late-innings glove/pinch runner to have around. (Remember when Ryan “Flash” Flaherty was the utility man?) A guy who can, in a pinch, slot into the two most difficult spots on the diamond and man them competently is not to be sneezed at.
Does Mike Elias care that Mateo puts up some of the most delightful defensive footage of any Oriole? Is “he plays hard and is fun to watch” something GM’s care about? I don’t want to see Jorge Mateo take Jackson Holliday’s AB’s next year, but this season showed how far a team can get with clever use of subs. Mateo is inconsistent but dynamic, versatile and he plays hard. Personally, I’d sign up for that.
Tomorrow: Kyle Gibson