Mateo brings lightning to lineup in loss

August 8th, 2021

BALTIMORE -- When the Orioles acquired in an under-the-radar waiver claim from the Padres on Thursday, Mateo’s reputation as a former top prospect still capable of future upside followed him across the country. Now 26, Mateo never realized that potential with the Yankees, A’s or Padres. He very well may grow into a contributor for an Orioles team that has used the waiver wire to find the occasional difference-maker during its rebuild. But one thing is certain: Mateo has at least one tool that definitely plays right now -- speed.

The Orioles’ newest middle infielder isn’t merely fast. He’s the fastest player in baseball, full stop, after narrowly eclipsing Trea Turner with several electrifying runs this weekend at Camden Yards. He’s 2 full feet per second on average faster than Cedric Mullins, one of the speediest Baltimore regulars in recent memory. He is, statistically, the fastest Oriole since Statcast began tracking speed in 2015, and the second-fastest big leaguer in that time, ranking just slightly behind Tim Locastro.

That could soon change with more nights like Saturday, when Mateo again made a difference with his legs despite Baltimore’s 12-3 loss to the Rays. Manufacturing a run entirely by himself in the third, Mateo threw a jolt into the crowd when he lined a double into the right-field corner, cruising into second base standing up. He stole third off Rays starter Shane McClanahan on the very next pitch, dashing home when Mike Zunino’s hurried throw sailed into left field. The dazzling sequence unfolded in a span of two pitches and took less than a minute, Mateo literally running out of his helmet twice along the way.

“He is lightning fast,” manager Brandon Hyde said Friday night.

Said pitcher Spenser Watkins, who took the loss Saturday: “He’s the fastest man alive. Simple as that.”

Hyperbole, perhaps. Yet the evidence is mounting.

On Friday, Mateo was thrust into emergency duty in place of the injured Ryan Mountcastle and made an immediate splash, lining a 108.5 mph triple to center and reaching a maximum sprint speed of 31.1 feet per second, per Statcast. That elite combination of tools was what made Mateo a top prospect as a teenager. He stole as many as 82 bases in a season and hit as many as 19 homers in another; as recently as 2019, he hit 19 homers with 24 steals at hitter-friendly Triple-A Las Vegas. But Mateo fell victim to the cancelled '20 Minor League season and eventually a roster crunch amid San Diego’s star-studded infield. He left the Padres having appeared in 79 games over the past two seasons, mostly as a versatile defensive replacement.

Things are different in Baltimore. The Orioles plan to give Mateo an extended opportunity down the stretch, and two games in, it isn’t difficult to see why. The difficult part is keeping your eye on him after he gets going. Entering Saturday, 21 of Mateo’s 30 (70 percent) competitive runs were bolts, meaning they registered at or above the elite 30-feet-per-second threshold.

Combine Mateo with the recent return of Richie Martin at shortstop, and the Orioles have added a dimension of athleticism missing on their infield for years. Mateo started Saturday at second, where he committed an error but also made above-average plays to his right on Manuel Margot’s grounder in the sixth and Nelson Cruz's popup in the eighth, surviving a light collision with Mullins in short center field.

“Mullins wasn’t expecting Mateo to even be there,” Hyde said. “That scared the heck out of all of us in the dugout, but that was because of Mateo’s range, he was able to get to that ball.”

Meanwhile, Martin started at short for the third straight game. When he and Mateo play side by side, Baltimore’s middle infield is comprised of its two fastest players since Statcast began tracking in 2015. Four of its five fastest are on the current team.

“That’s fun to watch,” Hyde said. “It’s going to be fun to work with both those guys, because they have Major League middle-of-the-infield range. It’s going to take some work and they might have some bumps along the way, but they will definitely be fun to work with.”

Saturday’s result came at the hands of McClanahan, a Baltimore native, and old friend Cruz, who supported McClanahan's seven innings of three-run ball with a go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth. The loss was Baltimore’s 10th in 11 games against the Rays this season; it has now allowed double-digit runs in four straight games, a team record.

All of which encapsulates the difficulties the Orioles have faced during this rebuilding cycle, now its its third season. In the process, they’ve fashioned themselves a destination for players cast off from other clubs -- knowing they could offer opportunities in a way contending clubs could not -- and they've cycled through rounds of these players at nearly every position. They’ve found some interesting pieces along the way, from Hanser Alberto to Renato Núñez, Martin (Rule 5 Draft), Cole Sulser and Tyler Wells (Rule 5). None can match Mateo’s upside, or how elite his top tool is.

“This is a great opportunity,” Mateo said. “I’m going to try to do the best I can do to be ready for the team.”