Jorge Mateo deserves as much credit as anyone for the Orioles’ franchise-best April, given how his revamped swing helped him produce at a level few in baseball matched last month.
Now that they’re trying to sustain their winning start to the season past the quarter-pole and into the next section of a daunting schedule against teams who are also striving for October baseball, that success he helped initiate might drastically reduce the amount of patience they have for him to turn things back around.
Mateo hit a ball hard up the middle Thursday in a loss to the Angels but continued his May collapse with an 0-for-4 that pulled his OPS since May 1 down to .268. His defense and athleticism remain assets that help the Orioles win when they do. The longer he hits like this, though, the shorter the leash a team that insists it is trying to win this season will give him.
Mateo’s streakiness showed last year as well, but not to this extent. He had a .565 OPS on July 10, then a .964 OPS in his next 35 games, then a .483 OPS from Aug. 24 on. This year has been even more drastic. Mateo was one of the game’s best hitters in April with a 1.062 OPS and a 186 wRC+ — where 100 is league average — at the end of the month. In May, he has that previously mentioned .268 OPS, and he entered Thursday with a -25 wRC+, which is worst in the league.
If his swing change explained how he started driving the ball all over the field in the first month, Mateo’s health probably explains his collapse. He left the game April 21 with hip soreness and, while he did not go on the injured list, manager Brandon Hyde said Wednesday that Mateo has been carrying leg soreness for several weeks.
Credit to him for playing through it, even if it may end up working against him. Ramón Urías being on the injured list with a hamstring strain probably forced that issue a bit, because the Orioles are without one of their top infield pieces as it is.
It would make sense if their goal now was to wait until Urías returns in the next few weeks before having to sort out the position longer term. Joey Ortiz’s presence, and the fact he’s started two of the last five games at shortstop, seems to indicate he’s a stopgap until they get to that point, at which time they’ll probably have to strongly consider what they want to do if Mateo’s swing decisions and contact quality don’t rebound.
There are plenty of options. Ortiz hasn’t hit much in his major league cameos, but everything about what he’s done in Triple-A is impressive. He had an .895 OPS in 116 plate appearances that was backed up by impressive batted-ball data — a 54.7% hard-hit rate, a 7% swinging strike rate and a 95th-percentile exit velocity of 108.7 mph.
He’s already up with the Orioles because he was added to the 40-man roster this winter, while fellow infield prospect Jordan Westburg remains in Norfolk because he’s not on the roster. His resume in Triple-A is no less impressive. After winning the organization’s minor league player of the year award with an .869 OPS and 18 home runs in 413 plate appearances at Norfolk last season, Westburg already has 12 home runs with a 1.010 OPS in 161 plate appearances there this year.
Like Ortiz, he can play all the infield spots and his Triple A performance is backed up by underlying data. Westburg has a 50.5% hard-hit rate and a 95th percentile exit velocity of 107.3 mph, though there may be more swing-and-miss there than the Orioles would like.
Both of those players are potential long-term shortstop options, to say nothing of Gunnar Henderson, who entered Thursday with an .804 OPS in May as he started being rewarded for his swing decisions with hard contact on balls in the zone. We can declare his slump over.
With those three around, plus Urías and Adam Frazier also in the infield rotation, a team that will probably need to win 88 or so games to make the playoffs and thus can’t afford a letup will need to consider more than just defense each time out. Mateo would still be useful as a bench bat who comes into games as a pinch runner or defensive replacement, although he’s expensive given he’s already into his salary arbitration years.
Whether Mateo turns it around or not, the Orioles will need to make a decision about shortstop soon, considering Ortiz’s presence and Westburg’s year of Triple-A production. If Mateo is looking over his shoulder at the alternatives and playing hurt to keep his spot, there’s plenty to admire in that. He might better secure his long-term future by giving himself time to recover to show the kind of player he can be at his best.
It wasn’t that long ago that we saw him produce at a level few can match. When the other side of that offensive coin is an OPS in a calendar month that would be a shoulder shrug of a batting average, a contending team with viable options elsewhere needs to start thinking about them quickly.