AL EastAnalysis

Former Top Prospect Jorge Mateo’s Hot Start

Jorge Mateo was signed as an international free agent by the New York Yankees in January 2012 for $225,000. Four years later in 2016, he was ranked by multiple outlets as one of baseball’s top 100 prospects and was even the Yankees’ top-ranked minor leaguer by some – one spot ahead of Aaron Judge.

Mateo was traded a year later to the Oakland Athletics. He was part of the package that brought Sonny Gray to New York. He was traded again in June 2020 to the Padres. A little more than a month later, he made his big league debut on August 13 with San Diego.

After a less-than-ideal start to his big league career – Mateo posted a 51 OPS+ in 121 plate appearances while with the Padres – he was designated for assignment on August 3, 2021. Two days later, the Dominican-born middle infielder was claimed by the Baltimore Orioles.

In his first full season with Baltimore in 2022, Mateo appeared in 150 games and was the club’s everyday shortstop. While his bat wasn’t that great – he hit .221/.267/.379 with 13 home runs and an 82 OPS+ – his glove was outstanding. So, too, was his ability on the base paths. He was one of the best defenders in the game last year with 14 defensive runs saved and 11 outs above average. The now 27-year-old also stole 35 bags and posted a 5.8 BsR. Overall, Mateo’s 3.4 fWAR was fourth on the Orioles last year.

It’s safe to say Mateo was a good player for the O’s a season ago. He provided strong defense up the middle and was a strong base runner. If he provided that same level of play this year for the Orioles, they would’ve taken it. But Mateo has started the 2023 season looking like a much better player overall with a massive improvement – albeit in a small sample size – at the plate. Through his first 96 plate appearances of 2023, Mateo is hitting .321/.372/.595 with six home runs. His 1.7 fWAR is already half of what it was last year, and we’re only a little more than a month into the season!

Is Mateo finally achieving what many thought he could in the big leagues when he was a top 100 prospect? Or is he just on a hot streak to start the year that isn’t sustainable?

Where Has Mateo Improved?

After last season, it was clear Mateo didn’t need to improve his defense or base running. So the only adjustments he needed to make were at the plate — and he has done that so far.

A noticeable difference for Mateo at the plate this year is his modified first movement in the batter’s box. Last year, he had a noticeable leg kick. This year, it’s a much simpler version of that:

2022 Swing:

2023 Swing:

With fewer moving parts in the box, Baltimore’s shortstop has seen an increase in his average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and walk percentage through his first 26 games of 2023 when compared to last year.

His average exit velocity was 86.9 miles per hour last season and currently sits at 90.1 miles per hour this year. His hard-hit rate in 2022 was 32.9%, while this year it’s 45.8%. And, Mateo’s walk rate so far in 2023 is 7.3% – a little over a two-percent increase from last year, when it was 5.1%. Yes, that is a small increase in walk rate. But, it is always better to walk more, even if it is just a slight uptick.

One of the more impressive numbers for the 27-year-old this year has been his strikeout percentage. He is punching out in 16.7% of his plate appearances, while last year he struck out 27.6% of the time. Needless to say, that’s a massive difference.

The shortstop has also boosted his numbers against breaking balls and off-speed pitches this year. Mateo has a .429 batting average with a .857 slugging percentage versus breaking stuff in 2023. His numbers against off-speed pitches are just as good – he’s hitting .417 with a .750 slugging percentage against those kinds of pitches. In 2022, he hit .230 while slugging .430 against breaking stuff and posted a .167 batting average and a .185 slugging percentage versus off-speed pitches. Those, too, are massive improvements.

When it comes to fastballs, the Dominican-born infielder hasn’t produced much last year or this year against them. In 2022, he had a batting average of .226 against hard stuff and slugged .376. This year, he’s hitting .227 and slugging .386 against fastballs. While there hasn’t been an increase in the actual numbers against fastballs for Mateo, the expected numbers are different. A year ago, his expected batting average against fastballs was .241 – this year it’s .273. His expected slugging percentage against fastballs a season ago was .367 – it’s .508 this year.

Mateo’s weighted on-base average, or wOBA, has skyrocketed in 2023 when likened to 2022. His wOBA this year is .407 – it was .281 a year ago. And his expected weighted on-base average, or xwOBA, this year is .375, while it was .272 in 2022.

One more area where Mateo has had an increase is his batting average when hitting ground balls – which he is hitting more of this year. Last season, he hit a ground ball 38.6% of the time and slashed .239/.239/.277 when doing so. This year, Mateo has an even 50% ground ball rate and is slashing .353/.353/.382 when hitting the ball on the ground. Those numbers are not because of the new shift rules being implemented this year, either. Mateo was only shifted against 3.1% of the time last year – an extremely low number. It is more likely his increased totals when hitting ground balls are because he is hitting the ball harder this year, making any grounder he hits difficult for infielders to get to and more likely to roll into the outfield for a hit.

Is It Sustainable?

It’s early in the season, so every player’s output must be taken with a grain of salt. In Mateo’s case, there are some numbers that could mean he’ll be better at the plate this year when compared to last. However, his numbers likely won’t stay where they’re at right now through the end of the season.

With an increased ground ball rate, one would think teams will eventually start to position infielders where they are allowed to be positioned in order to gobble up more of Mateo’s grounders. That could help, but he doesn’t hit the ball to just one area of the field. He’s able to pull it, hit it up the middle, and go the opposite way enough to keep fielders guessing as to where the ball will go. That could mean his numbers when hitting ground balls may just stay around where they are right now.

Since Mateo isn’t hitting as many line drives as he did last year, his sweet-spot rate has dropped dramatically. It was 35.2% in 2022 and is an even 25 percent this year. The more a player hits the ball in the “sweet spot,” the better results he’ll get. So we’ll have to wait and see if he can start to drive the ball in the air more.

It’s good that Mateo is hitting the ball harder, and with more frequency, while also striking out less. Those numbers should continue to sit around where they currently do – especially his exit velocity numbers.

In the section above, Mateo’s numbers against certain pitch types were discussed. Those numbers are a bit higher than what has been expected, though. Mateo’s expected batting average against breaking balls and off-speed pitches this year are .313 and .292, respectively. And his expected slugging percentages against those pitches are also lower than what they are – he has a .584 expected slugging percentage against breaking balls and a .359 expected slugging percentage against off-speed stuff.

Expected statistics aren’t the greatest in the world. However, they do shed some light on whether or not someone’s numbers are way higher – or lower – than they probably should be. So Mateo’s numbers versus fastballs, which was discussed above, should increase, and his numbers against both breaking and off-speed stuff will likely drop, but remain solid. And while his wOBA may decrease, it will likely remain much higher than it did a year ago.

One final look into whether or not Mateo’s numbers are sustainable comes from his home and road splits this year. He’s made more than double the appearances at the plate on the road than at home. This is because the Orioles have played slightly more road games than home games to start the year. In 31 home plate appearances, Mateo is slashing .276/.290/.448 with one home run. In his 65 trips to the plate away from Camden Yards he’s hitting .346/.413/.673 with five home runs.

He hasn’t walked at home yet, which is why his on-base percentage is so low at home. That likely won’t stay that way all year. His one home run at home, compared to his five on the road, makes sense when you think about where he hits his homers and the adjustments recently made to his home ballpark.

All of Mateo’s home runs this season have come by pulling the ball into left or left-center field. And at Camden Yards, the left field wall was moved back 30 feet and raised five feet in height before the start of last season. So, right-handed hitters like Mateo pulling home runs out of that park is much harder than at other parks.

All that being said, his astronomical road numbers are going to come down, and as a result, so will his overall slash-line.

Overall, Mateo probably won’t slug near .600 for the entire 2023 season. And playing more games at home looks like it will impact his totals. However, there are good signs that point to Mateo making some adjustments that have resulted in producing better at the plate. If he keeps those up, he’ll likely continue being an above-league-average hitter for the remainder of the season.

NOTE: All statistics in this article are accurate as of May 5, 2023.

Giving Credit

All of these observations were not my own. Mark DeRosa of MLB Network recently broke Mateo down, which sparked my interest in writing this article:

Bailey Digh

I've been writing for Diamond Digest since July 2022. I'm also currently a contributor for Phillies Nation. You can find me on X @bailey_digh.

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