When it comes to Orioles shortstop Jorge Mateo, there is a lot to like. He led the American League in stolen bases, he plays very solid, sometimes outstanding defense, and that top-of-the-scale speed never goes into a slump.
The defense and speed are plenty good enough for a first-division team, but is his offense? At a time when there are so many good-hitting shortstops in the American League, the O’s have a player that comes up short in that area.
When we consider Mateo’s future with the club, there are two elephants in the room: One, will that offense improve sufficiently or can we overlook it with that speed-defense combo? Two, will one or more of the O’s numerous and talented infield prospects be coming to take his job?
First, kudos and props for Mateo. In Orioles history, only Luis Aparicio and Brian Roberts have ever led the AL or been tied for first in steals. Mateo’s 35 topped the circuit by one over teammate Cedric Mullins, and by three over Tampa Bay’s Randy Arozarena.
Mateo’s dWAR, per baseball-reference.com, of 2.8 was tied for eighth-best in the major leagues. His 11 Outs Above Average (OAA), per Statcast, led AL shortstops, and his 14 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) ranked third among big league shortstops and second in the AL to Houston’s Jeremy Peña.
Mateo rated in the top three percent among all players in OAA, the top one percent in sprint speed and top 35 percent in arm strength. Not to mention he played with a very positive attitude and seemed to be well-liked and respected in the clubhouse.
But on offense, over 150 games, he batted .221/.267/.379/.646 and his 81 OPS+ was 19 percent below AL average. He did produce some pop, with 25 doubles, seven triples, 13 homers and 50 RBIs. His 5.1 walk rate was below average and his 27.6 strikeout rate was below AL average for batters.
But Mateo tied for second in the majors with seven triples and is the first O's player with seven in a season since Adam Jones (7) and Brian Roberts (8) in 2008. He was the only player this season with at least 40 extra-base hits (45) and 35 stolen bases (35), and he is the seventh player (10th occurrence) in O’s history to do so.
Here is the list and years that others with the O’s did that:
* Al Bumbry in 1980
* Brady Anderson in 1992 and 1999
* Delino DeShields in 2000
* Brian Roberts in 2006, 2007 and 2008
* Corey Patterson in 2006
* Jonathan Villar in 2019
But also this season, Mateo rated in the bottom 13 percent in exit velocity and hard-hit rate, and in the bottom 10 percent in chase rate, which was worse than the season before.
He did have a nice five-week stretch of hitting that ran from July 16 to Aug. 23, including his big night at the Little League Classic. In that span of 31 games he batted .321 with a .944 OPS. You thought maybe he had turned a corner. But that did not hold up and over his final 36 games, in which he hit .174/.213/.270/.483.
Mateo is a good guy and at times a terrific defender, but his offense might make it tough for him to stay on the field for an organization that has an impressive group on the rise at Double-A or above: Jordan Westburg, Connor Norby, Joey Ortiz, César Prieto, Coby Mayo and Darrel Hernaiz. Not to mention Jackson Holliday and Max Wagner, whom the Orioles drafted this year, and/or international prospects that could make an impact down the road, such as Maikol Hernandez and Frederick Bencosme.
In the AL you have shortstops who hit well, like Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Bo Bichette, Corey Seager, Peña and Bobby Witt Jr. Among the 18 AL shortstops with 300 plate appearances this season, Mateo ranked 14th in OPS.
Consider which left side of the infield might be more productive next year for the Orioles, taking into account offense, defense and speed: Mateo at short and Gunnar Henderson at third or Henderson at short and Jordan Westburg at third? And yes, Westburg could play at second base, of course. Statcast numbers actually showed Henderson with a stronger arm than Mateo.
Mateo is entering his first year of salary arbitration and is projected to make $1.8 million in 2023. That seems very reasonable for what he brings to the team. But in the cold and hard world of pro sports, can the Orioles do better?