Last summer, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman marked four prospects as "untradeable" at the July 31 deadline: first baseman Greg Bird, catcher Gary Sanchez, right fielder Aaron Judge, and, somewhat surprisingly, shortstop Jorge Mateo. While the Yankees were quickly eliminated by the Astros in the Wild Card round of the playoffs that year, thanks in part to their lack of deadline deals, the decision to keep Mateo in the organization now seems like a no-brainer. But just how good is this shortstop? And how close is he to reaching the major leagues?
Mateo has been consistently raking since August 2015. Last year, between Single-A Charleston and High-A Tampa, Mateo not only led the minor leagues in steals with 82, but he also batted .321 and slugged 36 extra-base-hits. During the last month of the season, he was even better, posting a .341/.390/.560 slash line and driving in 17 runs in just 23 games.
Mateo’s 2015 excellence has carried over to 2016. He is currently hitting a clean .350 in Tampa and already owns 13 extra-base-hits in only 30 games. His average, on base percentage (.406), and slugging percentage (.567) are all career-highs. He has flat-out dominated the High-A level in every manner possible. Clearly, the 21-year-old is due for a promotion.
The question we must now ask is, what does Mateo need to do to translate his success to the higher levels?
Mateo sprays the ball around the field and has surprising power. According to MLBFarm.com, 21% of his hits go to left field, 20% to right, and 18% to center. Mateo exhibits a similar split in number of fly balls to ground balls. He has produced about 39% fly balls and 38% ground balls during his at-bats this year.
At 6’0 190, Mateo has the power to lift the ball into the outfield and use his elite speed to collect doubles and triples. But he also understands that batting the ball into the ground will produce good results, as well, given his speed. That helps explain his astronomically high .425 BABIP this season. While this figure will surely come down, a player with Mateo’s quickness can maintain a high BABIP.
A 39% FB rate seems excessive for a player of Mateo’s speed. For comparison, fellow Yankees prospect (and power hitter) Aaron Judge hits fly balls only 38% of the time he makes contact. But examining Mateo’s swing, we see that he is different from the prototypical leadoff hitter. He begins his swing with a small leg lick and twists his front foot forward, in Moises Alou style, in order to keep his shoulders closed. As the ball gets closer, he shifts his hands and weight into his back legs. He then throws his hips into the ball, releasing his weight and generating enormous force. His swing plane has a slight uppercut that likely contributes to the high fly ball totals. His quick bat speed and weight release will allow him to catch up to and drive major league baseballs. I see Mateo more as a No. 2 hitter than a leadoff guy.
Since it is harder to gage defense on tape, let’s see what Minor League Ball’s own John Calvagno, who watched Mateo last year, had to say about Jorge’s defensive prowess.
Defensively he's aided by his tremendous speed to get to balls many other shortstops can't get to. Currently a little on the raw side, not as fluid as he will be. Plenty of arm for the position, quick release. Potential 55 glove, 55 Arm.
I would add that Mateo also appears to have the height and length for the position. A move to second may not be necessary. And while errors are not the best measure of minor league fielders, it may be worth noting that Mateo’s .950 fielding percentage in 2016 is a career-high. He should be a competent major league defensive shortstop.
One concern I have with Mateo is his high strikeout to walk ratio. He currently holds a 22.4% K rate and an 8.2% BB rate. That is unacceptable for a player with the speed that Mateo possesses. Further, this divide between strikeouts and walks has been increasing since Mateo became a pro.
When will he be ready?
Jorge Mateo needs to figure out what kind of player he is before he makes it to the Show. He is extremely talented, but sometimes too much talent can be a curse. While his power numbers continue to increase (along with his strikeout totals), his steal totals (only 9 this year, with 8 caught stealings) seem in decline. Mateo should work on lowering his fly ball and strikeout rates, getting on base, and stealing more bases. That, not power, fly balls, and strikeouts, is his best path to success in the major leagues.
But he needs to be challenged in order to come to that realization. Right now, he is simply too good for his level. I expect the Yankees to soon move Mateo to Double-A Trenton. We will learn a lot about Mateo as a player once he reaches the upper minors. If all goes right, by mid-spring 2017, he could be playing shortstop in the Big Apple.
Now it’s your turn: How good do you think Mateo can be?
Statistics come from MLBFarm.com and Fangraphs.com