Can Jorge Mateo Sustain His Hot Start?
With the Baltimore Orioles holding on to a narrow 4-3 lead in the ninth inning of Sunday's game against the Detroit Tigers, Jorge Mateo stepped up to the plate against Chasen Shreve in his final at-bat of an 0-for-3 afternoon. Of course, Mateo crushed a Shreve pitch down the left field line for his sixth homer of April to give the O's a 5-3 lead. Offense was a major weakness for Jorge in 2022 despite his 35 stolen bases and gold glove caliber defense but he has turned things around through the first month of 2023 with the best offensive stretch of his life.
Despite the presence of young studs like Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg, and Jackson Holliday; Mateo has played his way into being the possible shortstop of the future for the O's with his play. The question for Orioles fans that remains is whether or not Mateo can sustain his hot offensive start and possibly lead the Orioles to their first Postseason appearance since 2016.
Mateo, 28 in June, was acquired by the Orioles in 2021 as a waiver claim from the Padres and immediately impacted the O's with his blazing speed and versatility in the field. He was listed as an outfielder on the Orioles roster on Opening Day in 2022 but ended up playing 149 games at shortstop with 14 defensive runs saved above average. However, his offense was subpar as he slashed .221/.267/.379 with an 82 OPS+ and mostly hit eighth or ninth in the lineup. Notably, he drew only 27 walks and struck out 147 times for a 27.6% strikeout rate and essentially one strikeout per game. He did show off occasional power with 13 home runs and 45 extra base hits.
This season, however, has been a complete shift for Mateo offensively as he is slashing .353/.403/.647 with a 189 OPS+ through 22 games. As mentioned earlier, he has already hit six homers, including two in the most recent series in Detroit. His strikeout rate has also decreased to 15.2% while his walk rate has increased from 5.1% to 7.6%. Albeit, all this has occurred in an extremely small sample size but his improvements at the plate have been monumental. He is also 10-for-11 in stolen base attempts and his constant threats on the basepaths have allowed other Orioles hitters to improve offensively. Despite the early success, Mateo has not risen much in the O's lineup and continues to hit near the bottom of the order.
The power improvements have been the most glaring. Between '22 and '23, his isolated power (ISO) has improved from .158 to .294 and his weighted on base average (wOBA) has improved from .281 to .440. Last season, he hit a home run once every 41 plate appearances while this season has been once every 13 plate appearances. These glaring improvements show meaningful progress in his approach at the plate and his ability to make hard contact, although a month sample size can be deceiving as luck can play a major factor.
However, the peripheral stats support the idea that Mateo is set for a breakout offensive season and can sustain his early success. According to Baseball Savant, Mateo ranks in the top 25% in each of these offensive categories: sprint speed, expected batting average, maximum exit velocity, expected weighted on base average, expected slugging percentage, strikeout percentage, and hard hit percentage. In 2022, he ranked in the bottom 16% in each of those categories except maximum exit velocity and sprint speed. This suggests that he has not just incrementally improved his offensive approach but has completely overhauled his game and has found the magic touch.
Mateo has always had plenty of power potential as he has occasionally hit balls harder than most other hitters are capable of but has not been able to harness that power for sustained offense. His improvements seem to stem from increased plate discipline and an ability to lay off pitches he would not have previously. In 2022, he ranked in the 12th percentile for whiff rate while he is now in the 58th percentile in that same category.
This selective eye has also turned him from one of the most strikeout-prone hitters in baseball to one of the least. He ranked in the 13th percentile for strikeout rate last year and has improved to the 86th percentile this year. Clearly, he has benefited from offseason work with the Orioles hitting instructors to improve his swing decisions and this has paid huge dividends for him and the rest of the Orioles offense throughout April.
Ultimately, Jorge Mateo has shown monumental improvements between last season and the first month of this season. These improvements stem from a fundamentally different approach at the plate which has allowed him to harness his full power potential and cause disruptions to opposing pitching staffs which makes the Orioles lineup so much more dangerous. Whether or not this success is sustainable depends on whether he can continue to stay disciplined through the dog days of summer as opposing pitchers make adjustments. If Jorge does continue to terrorize opposing pitchers, he could certainly be on his way to his first All-Star Game appearance and a healthy payday this offseason as he is arbitration eligible at the end of the year.