Monday, May 16, 2022

With subtle swing changes and a ‘five-tool’ skill set, Jorge Mateo pulls off the Orioles’ everyday shortstop role

Ryan Fuller sees incremental changes every day in the batting cage, subtle changes to Jorge Mateo’s hand position, his weight and his stance to shorten. They add up to a major overhaul, but in small doses, the changes don’t bother the Orioles’ co-hitting coach.

But for Darren Holmes, assistant pitching coach, who practices batting on the field, those changes in Matteo’s approach came as a blow. He doesn’t see Mateo every day, as Fuller does, so his astonishment at the adjustment serves as verification.

“For anyone else looking at it, like, ‘Oh man, this looks different,’ it was kind of like, ‘Okay, this is spinning the needle a little here.'” Fuller said.

Mateo’s game has been developed so much. He is a plus-fielder with elite pace. He can hit for average, steal bases and surprise with the occasional power. According to SportsInfo Solutions, Mateo is fifth in the league among shortstops, with four defensive runs saved.

But doing all this at a consistent level has been Mateo’s biggest challenge – and one he hasn’t faced at the major league level until this season. As the Orioles’ everyday shortstop, Matteo is putting together the last piece in his puzzle, adding consistency in the shape of a nine-game hitting streak to the rest of the tools he already has.

Matteo is in a role he’s always wanted. And he’s living up to the billing.

“He never got a chance to play every day, and he would get a chance to play shortstop here,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “I want him to take it and run with it.”

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The road to Mateo is full of obstacles. A former high-ranked prospect with the New York Yankees, he was packaged as part of a deal that sent Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics to the Bronx.

He was then introduced to the San Diego Padres in 2020, where he made his major league debut as a utility fielder. With Fernando Tatis Jr. patrolling at shortstop, there was not a clear path to everyday play.

And then in August 2021, the Orioles stripped Mateo of remission, opening the door for the 26-year-old. He showed glimpses of his ability to finish that season, playing across the field.

However, Matteo arrived for spring training this off-season with a goal. And after hitting .381 with 1.315 Ops in nine spring training games, Hyde pulled Mateo aside.

“We want you to be our shortstop,” Hyde told him.

All this Mateo wanted to hear.

“Now I have the opportunity,” said Mateo. “I know how to deal with it. This is a good opportunity for me and I try to take advantage of it and make the team proud.

Fuller wanted to make some adjustments though. With a brief spring training due to baseball’s 99-day lockout, the hitting coach waited to make most of the major adjustments until Matteo made the big league team, giving them more time to work one-on-one. found it.

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First changed his stance, with Fuller trying to stop Matteo’s bottom half from going towards the pitcher. Then came Matteo’s decision to change the load, bringing the bat back to his shoulder joint to allow a longer bat path into the zone. With his pace, Mateo said his focus is on playing the ball, because “something is about to happen.”

“It’s sort of bridging the efficiency of the lower body with the efficiency of the upper body,” Fuller said. “He’s super-talented, obviously. That’s what we all see everyday. But consistency with the bat has been a big focus for us.”

As consistency builds up at the plate—a nine-game hitting streak takes his average to .243, with a league-best 10 steals—it pairs with the lucrative plays he makes at shortstop. Twice he turned into double plays after running into center field, trapping a popup and firing the ball first to catch a runner. He threw a twist on a sharp grounder mid-Friday.

Those are extraordinary moments that seem routine at the moment. And they’re part of the reason he’s clinging to his role as Baltimore’s everyday shortstop, proving for the first time in his major league career that the lineup card is where his name belongs in each game.

“He’s a guy with five tools when you look at him,” Fuller said. “It’s fun watching him play.”

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Nation World News Desk
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