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

Ryan Fuller sees the incremental changes every day in the batting cage, the subtle tweaks to shortstop Jorge Mateo’s hand positioning, his load and his stance. They add up to a larger overhaul, but in small doses, the alterations aren’t as jarring to the Orioles’ co-hitting coach.

But to Darren Holmes, the assistant pitching coach who throws on-field batting practice, those changes to Mateo’s approach came in one fell swoop. He doesn’t see Mateo each day, as Fuller does, so his amazement at the adjustments served as validation.

“For someone else to see it, like, ‘Oh man, that looks different,’ it was kind of like, ‘All right, it’s moving the needle a little bit here.’” Fuller said.

So much of Mateo’s game is developed. He’s a plus-fielder with elite speed. He can hit for average, steal bases and surprise with occasional power. According to Sports Info Solutions, Mateo ranks fifth in the league among shortstops with four defensive runs saved.

But doing it all at a consistent level has been Mateo’s largest challenge — and one he hasn’t faced at the major league level until this season. As the Orioles’ everyday shortstop, Mateo 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 possesses.

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

“He’s never had an opportunity to play every day, and he’s gonna have the opportunity to play shortstop here,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I want him to take it and run with it.”

The path for Mateo has been filled with roadblocks. A former highly ranked prospect with 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 dealt to the San Diego Padres in 2020, where he made his major league debut as a utility fielder. With Fernando Tatis Jr. patrolling shortstop, there wasn’t a clear path to everyday playing time there.

And then in August 2021, the Orioles selected Mateo off waivers, opening the door for the 26-year-old. He showed flashes of his potential to finish that season, playing all over the field.

Mateo arrived to spring training this offseason with a goal, however. And 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.

It’s all Mateo wanted to hear.

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

There were adjustments Fuller wanted to make, though. With a shortened spring training because of baseball’s 99-day lockout, the hitting coach waited to make most of the major adjustments until Mateo had made the big league squad, giving them more time to work one-on-one.

First came the change to his stance, with Fuller trying to stop Mateo’s bottom half from drifting toward the pitcher. Then came the decision to alter Mateo’s load, bringing the bat back into his shoulder joint to allow for a longer bat path in the zone. With his speed, Mateo said his focus is to put the ball in play, because “something is going to happen.”

“It’s just kind of piecing lower-body efficiency with upper-body efficiency,” Fuller said. “He’s ultra-talented, obviously. We all see that every day. But consistency with the bat has been a big focus for us.”

As that consistency at the plate grows — a nine-game hitting streak bringing his average to .243 with a league-best 10 steals — it couples with the flashy plays he makes at shortstop. Twice he’s turned double plays after racing into center field, snaring a popup and firing the ball to first to nab a runner. He made a twirling throw on a sharp grounder up the middle Friday.

They’re standout moments that look routine at this point. And they’re part of the reason he’s locking down 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 each game.

“He’s a five-tool guy when you look at him,” Fuller said. “It’s fun to see him play.”

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