For Jorge Mateo to hit the 40-mph lob of a pitch lofted toward home plate by Yu Chang, then a Tampa Bay Rays position player pitching in an August blowout last year, the Orioles shortstop’s mechanics completely changed.

Mateo ditched his usual leg kick, waiting patiently for the pitch to finally arrive with a small toe tap. His upper body, while still featuring some minor arm movement, was much quieter. He slowed everything down. The years of coaching evaporated into something more akin to a backyard whiffle ball game, pure instincts taking over — and he lashed the ball into center field for a single.

“He wasn’t thinking about his mechanics, he wasn’t thinking about what he was trying to do,” said Matt Borgschulte, the Orioles’ co-hitting coach. “He was just seeing the ball and hitting it.”

In the moment, the importance of that ninth-inning at-bat in a game long over didn’t fully sink in for Borgschulte. But later, in the offseason, Borgschulte went back to that August at-bat as a template for what Mateo could do going forward, even against the world-class hurlers who throw 60 mph faster than Chang.

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To do more with the bat in his hands, Mateo needed to do less.

“Sometimes in the box, and sometimes in hitting, you get so much coaching throughout your career that you think about, ‘Where’s my elbow? Where’s my hands?’” Borgschulte said. “He’s best when he’s just being athletic, and that’s what we noticed when Yu Chang was just throwing lollipops in there.”

Matt Borgschulte (62) poses for a portrait during Photo Day at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota on 2/23/23. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The discovery led to a swing overhaul this offseason with his hitting partner, Ramon Valdez. Between the Dominican Republic, Tampa and Miami, Mateo rid his swing of the leg kick he has long used, and he minimized his upper body movement. In addition, Mateo focuses on keeping his head and front shoulder over his front foot, avoiding a tendency last season to lean back at the plate during his swing.

The results, as exhibited Tuesday night with a solo homer, have been strong. Mateo leads the Orioles with a .351 batting average and 1.049 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, and while the sample size is about a month long, it marks a significant jump from the .646 OPS he posted last year.

“Just focusing on less movement at the plate,” Mateo said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “When there’s less movement, you have better opportunity to recognize pitches and see what pitches are coming, and it’s easier to identify those things.”

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There are multiple benefits to his new approach at the plate. He doesn’t lose any power by ditching the leg kick. Instead, he avoids the front side of his body flying open, a bad habit that led Mateo to be early on off-speed pitches and chase outside sliders, particularly.

According to FanGraphs, Mateo swung at 39.4% of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone in 2022. That has declined to 30.1% so far this season. He swung through 37.1% of the sliders he saw last year, but that rate is down to just 14.8% in 2023.

That improved pitch recognition comes from Mateo’s focus on keeping his front shoulder closed. He can keep his front shoulder closed because he got rid of his leg kick. And with a more direct path to the ball as a result of slowing his upper-body movement, he’s putting more balls in play on the ground or on a line — 53.2% of his contact has come as ground balls, and his fly ball rate is lower; for a speedster, that creates more opportunities.

“He has freakish power for his size and his stature, and if we can get him to touch the ball more, put the barrel on it more, it’s only going to lead to him having more success at the plate, getting on base, and we know what he can do when he gets on base,” Borgschulte said. “Getting more shots on goal, if you will.”

This has long been the vision for the Orioles, even if it was murky. The tools have always been there — his speed and fielding abilities are indisputable — but to warrant a role as a winning club’s everyday shortstop, his bat needed to improve.

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In 19 games, Mateo’s four homers match the number he hit between the San Diego Padres and Orioles in 2021. He’s already a quarter of the way to the 50 RBIs he managed in a full season in Baltimore last year. His average isn’t likely to remain at .351 all season, but even a slight dip would be a vast improvement.

And it all changed during an at-bat against a position player, with Chang lobbing in pitches that made Mateo abandon the leg kick that was only holding him back.

Baltimore Orioles shortstop Jorge Mateo (3) does the team’s sprinkler celebration after doubling in a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards on Monday, April 24. The Orioles beat the Red Sox, 5-4, in the first game of the series. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)