Ryan Fuller sees incremental changes in the batting cage every day, with minor adjustments to shortstop Jorge Mateo’s hand position, load and stance. They added up for a larger overhaul, but in small doses, the changes weren’t all that jarring to the Orioles’ combined hitting coach.
But for assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes, who oversees live batting practice, these changes for Mateo are one-off. He doesn’t see Mateo every day like Fuller does, so his surprise at the adjustment serves as validation.
“Let other people see it and be like, ‘Oh man, this doesn’t look the same,’ and it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, it’s moved a little bit here,'” Fuller said.
Many of Mateo’s games have been developed. He’s an extremely fast outfielder. He can play average, steal bases, and occasionally surprise him. According to Sports Info Solutions, Mateo ranks fifth in the league among shortstops with four defensive points.
But doing it at a consistent level has been Mateo’s biggest challenge — and one he hasn’t faced at the major league level until this season. A daily shortstop for the Orioles, Mateo is piecing together the final piece of his puzzle, adding consistency on a nine-game winning streak to the other tools he already has.
Mateo plays the role he always wanted. He lived up to the bill.
“He’s never had the opportunity to play every day, and he’s going to have the opportunity to play shortstop here,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I want him to run with it.”
Mateo’s path is full of obstacles. A former high-ranked forward for the New York Yankees, he was packaged as part of the deal that sent Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics to the Bronx.
He was then traded to the San Diego Padres in 2020, where he made his major league debut as a utility outfielder. Fernando Tatis Jr. patrols shortstop, where the daily game time doesn’t have a clear path.
Then in August 2021, the Orioles selected Mateo’s waiver, opening the door for the 26-year-old. He showed his potential to finish that season, playing on the court.
However, Mateo came to spring training this offseason with a goal. After hitting .381 with a 1.315 OPS in nine spring training games, Hyde pulled Mateo aside.
“We want you to be our shortstop,” Hyde told him.
This is what Mateo wants to hear.
“Now I get my chance,” Mateo said. “I know how to handle it. It’s a great opportunity for me and I’ll try to take advantage of it and make the team proud.”
However, Fuller wants to make some adjustments. With baseball suspended for 99 days and spring training shortened, hitting coaches waited until Mateo entered the major league lineup to make most of the major adjustments, giving them more time for one-on-one workouts.
The first was a change in his stance, with Fuller trying to stop Mateo’s lower body from drifting toward the pitcher. It was then decided to change Mateo’s load and bring the bat back to his shoulder joint to allow a longer bat path in that area. With his speed, Mateo said his focus is on getting the ball to work because “something happens.”
“It’s just combining lower-body efficiency with upper-body efficiency,” Fuller said. “Obviously, he’s very talented. We see that every day. But consistency with the bat has always been our focus.”
With increasing consistency on the plate — nine straight games allowed him to hit .243 per game and have a league-best 10 steals — this is combined with his flamboyant performance at shortstop . Twice he turned a double after rushing into midfield, snaring a pop-up and firing the ball into the first to catch a runner. On mid-Friday, he spun and threw on a sharp grounder.
They are standout moments that seem routine at this point. That’s part of the reason he’s locked into Baltimore’s daily shortstop role, proving for the first time in his career that lineup cards are where his name is in every game.
“When you look at him, he’s a guy with five tools,” Fuller said. “It was fun to watch him play.”