With Opening Day just a few short days away, one player that I would like to preview for this upcoming season is Orioles shortstop Jorge Mateo. He is a captivating player due to his dazzling defensive abilities combined with his electrifying speed. However, Jorge is well below average when it comes to offensive production. With the O’s hoarding a plethora of middle infield options at the MLB and AAA levels, Mateo will need to drastically improve his abilities at the plate in order to maintain a role as an everyday starter.
The 27 year-old began his journey to the major leagues after being signed by the New York Yankees out of the Dominican Republic in 2012 as an international amateur free agent. Throughout his first five years of playing professional baseball, Jorge performed well at the plate while recording 234 stolen bases across four levels in the minor leagues. This ultimately earned him the #30 spot on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects List in 2016.
In July of 2017, he was shipped off by the Yankees as a part of package that also included the likes of Dustin Fowler and James Kaprielian in a trade deadline deal that netted Oakland A’s starting pitcher Sonny Gray in return. Mateo would proceed to lose his status as a top prospect after experiencing some offensive struggles, highlighted by a 2018 season at AAA in which he batted just .230 alongside 139 strikeouts in 131 games played. The following season would go much better for Mateo as he slashed .290/.330/.504 with an OPS of .834 and 19 home runs across 119 games. Unfortunately, this was still not enough to earn him a spot on a major league roster.
He would eventually make his major league debut in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season as a member of the San Diego Padres. Almost immediately following the end of the roster freeze, Mateo was traded once again from Oakland to the Pads in exchange for the awe-inspiring PTBNL. San Diego was in playoff contention and sought out a versatile utility-man who could serve as a pinch runner and late game defensive sub.
Mateo rarely got the opportunity to start during his tenure in SoCal due to the fact that the Padres infield featured the likes of Manny Machado, Jake Cronenworth, and Fernando Tatis Jr. After slashing .207/.250/.322 in 57 games as well as being out of minor league options, Jorge was placed on waivers in early August and claimed by yours truly, the Baltimore Orioles.
Because the Orioles were still amidst their rebuild, Mateo was given the opportunity to play every day upon arriving in Charm City. He performed well at the dish by producing a slash line of .280/.328/.421 with an OPS of .748 in 32 games. Jorge was shut down in early September for the remainder of the season after experiencing right lumbar inflammation. Despite being a small sample size, it was still encouraging to see some offensive improvements given his previous track record. However, what came with it was a BABIP of .359 which was significantly higher then his career average of .296. This suggests that his performance was not sustainable and was likely due for some regression.
Moving forward to 2022, Mateo did indeed regress. He batted .205/.258/.353 with a .611 OPS and 7 round trippers over his first 85 games all the while striking out in 33% of his AB’s. The latter half of the season was slightly better as Jorge slashed .241/.279/.412 and his K-rate fell to just below 25%. Both of those lines would combine to produce a final line of .221/.267/.379 alongside an OPS of .646. In addition to a .281 wOBA and wRC+ of 82 as well as 13 HR’s and 50 RBI’s
As expected, Jorge was absolutely stellar on the defensive side. To get a better sense of his overall performance, direct your attention to the following table consisting of last year’s fielding statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.
Every single one of his appearances in the field came at SS, and rightfully so. His DRS, OAA, and UZR values ranked #3, #4, and #2 respectively among all qualified players in major league baseball at the position. Despite this fact, Mateo wasn’t even named a finalist for a 2022 Gold Glove Award. Below you can find another table that clearly displays just how massive of a snub it was.
As you can see, Jorge has a rather significant advantage in two out of three and proceeds to fall just short in terms of DRS against Houston Astros rookie sensation Jeremy Peña who would eventually be walking away with the award.
Outs Above Average (OAA), Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are the three major defensive statistics that are typically used to evaluate a fielder’s overall performance. The latter two attempt to quantify how much better or worse than league average a player is in terms of runs. In turn, a positive value of 11 for both statistics can be interpreted as said player is 11 runs better than the average fielder at the position (vice versa for negative numbers). The only difference being is that DRS takes into account batted ball data such as exit velocity and launch angle to arrive at its final mark.
Conversely, OAA focuses primarily on how much range each individual fielder possesses. It is can be interpreted by how many outs that player has saved with his abilities as opposed to runs.
With that being said, we can now speak on Mateo’s bread and butter; baserunning! I’ve briefly touched on some insane stolen base totals throughout his time in the minors. He continued this trend throughout last season by swiping 35 bags in 44 attempts for a 79.5% success rate. With larger bases making their way into professional baseball, we can only expect those totals to increase. Additionally, Baseball Savant has Mateo ranked in the 99th percentile of all qualified players for sprint speed at 30.1 ft/sec.
Furthermore, over the course of the season he produced a bWAR of 3.4 (Baseball Reference Version). For those interested, Fangraphs had Mateo at a value of 2.8 throughout 2022. From a pure evaluative standpoint, I prefer using BBRef for position players as it tends to describe what actually happened as opposed to FG’s which typically indicates what should have happened in terms of performance which would be more useful when assessing pitchers.
Before trying to "fix" Mateo, it would certainly be beneficial to determine what exactly is preventing him from producing at a high level, In order to reach that particular conclusion, we should first establish exactly what kind of hitter Jorge Mateo is.
Believe it or not, he emulates similar qualities and characteristics as your typical major league power hitter. This is verifiable thanks to our good ole’ trusty bar chart below. Mateo is very free-swinging while simultaneously sporting some pretty atrocious strikeout and walk rates.
Additionally, his slugging percentage is actually higher than what you might expect for a hitter of his caliber to produce. This could also partially be attributed to the fact that he capable of stretching singles into doubles, and doubles into triples with his speed.
What really jumps out is Mateo’s maximum exit velocity mark of 111.3 mph which ranked in the 75th percentile among all qualified hitters in major league baseball. He also posted a slightly above average ISO of .158 while simultaneously being in the 12th and 13th percentiles for average exit velocity and hard hit % (percentage of balls hit over 95 mph) confirming the existence of some untapped potential in regards to raw power.
So what exactly is preventing Mateo from harnessing this power on a consistent basis? Luckily, I have a few theories that could also serve as culprits for some of his other offensive struggles.
1. Batted Ball Characteristics
Based on the spray chart below, Jorge can also be classified as a spray hitter who is able to utilize the entire field. However, he hits for power primarily to his pull side as well as slightly towards center.
If we decide to include every single ball that was put into play, something intriguing begins to present itself. Just to clarify, by highlighting any discrepancies in Mateo’s numbers against the league average, the intention isn’t necessarily to critique or praise his performance but rather potentially uncover any abnormalities.
By viewing this data, it has become evident that he is pulling balls at a below average rate as well as going oppo more often than your typical batter. His pop-up % ranks in the 72nd percentile of all qualified hitters which does warrant some concern as those types of hits almost always turn into outs. The numbers remain relatively consistent if we also compare them to his 2021 season with one exception in that Mateo went to the opposite field at a rate that is nearly 10% higher than his previous year’s total of 19.1%.
I also previously came across this article on Pitcher List from a few years ago in which writer Austin Bristow was conducting a similar examination on former Oriole Jonathan Schoop. He presented a very interesting way of analyzing power production by isolating line drives and flyballs (the types of batted balls most often hit for power).
In turn, I decided to take a similar approach with Mateo and the results were pretty eye-opening. As you can see, Jorge is absolutely demolishing balls that are hit towards left and center field. At the same time, he is producing well below average numbers on balls hit to right which also happens to be the direction where he hits it most often.
This notion is further supported by looking at the following heatmap that plots all of Mateo’s field outs from this past season (take notice of the large cluster in right/right center field). Moving forward, it is clear that Mateo would benefit greatly by focusing on consistently putting the ball in the air towards left field (his pull side).
2. Park Factors
Like nearly every other right-handed hitter that played at OPACY this past year, Mateo was negatively impacted by the integration of Mt. Walltimore. By overlaying all of his batted ball data onto the pre-2022 dimensions of OPACY, it would be well within reason to make the assumption that he would have hit an additional 9–10 home runs during the season.
Now, had Jorge player every single game this past season at Camden Yards with the new dimensions, his dinger total for the season would have decreased from 13 down to 12. This would have been third lowest in all of the MLB behind a three-way tie between Busch Stadium, Comerica Park, and Kauffmann Stadium at 10, as well as a two-way tie between LoanDepot Park and PNC Park at 11.
With that being said, I don’t really anticipate much production coming by way of the long ball, however it will be exciting to watch him continue to leg out a few doubles and triples on hits that go deep into the left field corner.
3. Plate Discipline/Approach
We’ve already established that Mateo is very aggressive at the plate while also being well below average when it comes to generating walks as well as striking out at nearly a 28% clip. I’ve taken the liberty of digging a little deeper in an attempt to pinpoint exactly where these issues are stemming from.
Putting it bluntly, the 27-year old is not where you’d like him to be in any of the above categories. It isn’t noteworthy that he is swinging at pitches inside the strike zone more often than your average hitter. The problem more so lies within that fact that he making contact on those pitches at a below average rate. Similarly, on balls thrown outside of the zone, he is chasing those pitches at an above average rate and ultimately making contact significantly less often.
His swing percentage on the first pitch also jumped over 11% between 2021 and 2022. This was coupled with a 9.5% increase in which the first pitch of an AB resulted in a strike. By immediately be down 0–1 in the count all the while the opposing pitcher knows he is an aggressive hitter who has a tendency to chase, Mateo is only putting himself in that much more of an unfavorable position. He would benefit greatly from refining his approach at the plate into becoming a patient hitter in addition to focusing on improving his decision making.
4. Individual Pitch Performance
This topic could most definitely tie in with the previous section regarding plate discipline and approach. Mateo was not great against fastballs this past season. He batted .203 with a .339 SLG and .304 wOBA. This can partly be attributed to just being unlucky as his expected batting average (xBA) and slugging percentage (xSLG) were .222 and .354 respectively. Expected statistics are useful in these situations as they are indicative of what should have been happening based on quality of contact.
The opposition eventually caught on to this trend and began throwing more heaters against Jorge after the month of July (48% in Jul. to 58% in Sep).
Right around the same time, we also notice that Mateo’s overall wOBA against each individual pitch type took a nose dive.
In accordance with the following heatmaps, he also had a tendency to swing (and miss) at the high cheese.
Jorge’s performance against the curveball is likely what kept him afloat throughout 2022. He batted .314 with a .667 SLG and wOBA of .409. Unfortunately, we can’t get too excited as these numbers were miles above his .239 xBA, .414 xSLG, and .280 expected wOBA indicating that more regression is in store. What that in mind, Mateo will need to make adjustments against the fastball if he wants to contribute more offensively.
While not ultimately impacting his numbers, I did come across a bit of a head-scratcher in regards to the defensive shift. According to Baseball Savant, Mateo produced a treacherous .154 wOBA when being shifted against (.284 wOBA without shift). The caveat? this only occurred on 3% of his total 533 plate appearances (league average was 19.5%).
I highly doubt that any professional baseball organization failed to notice this trend leading me to believe that they simply didn’t care? Jorge was subpar in either situation hence why opposing teams may have felt it was worth the risk in letting him hit freely in exchange for playing more conservatively to avoid potentially getting burned by Mateo’s running abilities.
Based on the chart below, when he was presented with a non-traditional defensive alignment, Mateo most often received the "three players on the left side of the infield" treatment along with the center and right fielders shading slightly towards right (red clusters indicate where fielders were most often positioned). This matches up well in terms of Jorge’s center, pulled, and opposite field batted ball percentages that we viewed earlier.
To be frank, I don’t envision much of a future for Mateo here in Baltimore unless he is able to consistently produce at the plate. He is a terrific player and would continually be a valuable piece coming off the bench. But, would it really be worth it to take a roster spot away from someone with arguably more potential?
In 17 spring training games thus far, Jorge has slashed .273/.333/.386 which is surely a step in the right direction. However, I would still imagine that the Orioles give him a relatively short leash to start off the season given the already crowded middle infield as well as the looming presence of potential mid-season call-ups in Connor Norby, Joey Ortiz, and Jordan Westburg. Dan Connolly of The Athletic echoed this sentiment in a March 13th news article on the AL East.
It mostly depends on Jorge Mateo. The Orioles will give him a chance to prove he is a better hitter than the .221/.267/.379 he slashed in his first season as a full-time big leaguer in 2022. Because Mateo, 27, is so dynamic defensively (2022 Fielding Bible Award) and on the basepaths (led the AL in steals with 35), the Orioles likely will give him at least two months to show he can be at least competent at the plate (.250 BA, .300 OBP).
If that doesn’t happen, and Ortiz, Norby or Jordan Westburg are thriving at Triple-A Norfolk, one may then get the call to the majors to be a primary starter.
Perhaps we encounter a scenario in which none of the aforementioned prospects are meeting the expectations originally set for them. In this case, Gunnar Henderson has already proven he is more than capable of taking over at SS.
This would allow for Rámon Urías to shift back to 3B full-time where he is just coming off a Gold Glove Award winning season. Furthermore, Terrin Vavra and Adam Frazier would share playing time at second.
It would also be well within the realm of possibility that Mateo becomes trade bait and is dealt by this summer’s MLB Trade Deadline. Whatever the outcome may be, rest assured that this will only be one of many compelling storylines for a 2023 Baltimore Orioles squad that is primed and ready for playoff contention.