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The Baltimore Sun

Math Whiz Matos Does Number On Pitchers

Center fielder proves quick study as O's stress on-base percentage\

By Joe Christensen | Sun Staff

July 20, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Sun. All rights reserved. 

As a kid growing up in Puerto Rico, Orioles center fielder Luis Matos used to love math.

When it came to numbers and formulas, he took home A's on all his report cards. And if this whole baseball thing hadn't panned out, he probably would have pursued a career in engineering or accounting.

So with the Orioles developing a new math this season, placing a greater emphasis on plate discipline and on-base percentage, Matos has been a quick study.

After a three-year struggle to prove he could generate enough offense to hold down a steady job in the big leagues, Matos has kept the calculators burning this season.

Every game, his hit totals and run totals seem to expand. He is batting .352, eight points higher than Melvin Mora, the Orioles' lone All-Star representative.

Matos has 68 hits and has scored 41 runs in his 46 games. Last night he hit his seventh home run.

"I certainly wouldn't classify it as shocking," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "But I think it's a pleasant surprise. It's something we certainly hoped we would see from Luis. That was the one part of his game that really needed to develop."

Defensively, Matos had the polish and grace of a big league center fielder three years ago.

Offensively, his career major league average entering this season was .212, and he had never hit better than .297 for an extended period anywhere in the minor leagues.

At age 24, he has spent the past two months erasing doubts about his offensive abilities, and he hopes to spend the next two months etching a place in the Orioles' future plans.

"There's still a long way to go," he said.

Still, Matos has come pretty far since the Orioles took him as a 10th-round pick in the 1996 amateur draft. At the time, he had a relatively scrawny body at 6 feet, 150 pounds.

Matos showed some of his greatest strengths in the classroom at Disciple of Christ Academy in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. He graduated with honors, posting a 3.70 grade-point average.

Oklahoma State recruited him to play baseball, but Matos came 10 points short of a qualifying score on his SAT exam.

"They didn't have the test in Spanish; they had it in English," Matos said.

"I took it twice, and in the math, I was good. But I didn't have the English I do now, and that was tough.

"I was going to go to junior college, but I didn't want my parents to worry about the plane tickets [to see his games]. So I just prayed and told God I was going for it."

Matos signed with the Orioles and began a steady climb through their farm system. He grew two inches and gradually started filling out his frame. He now stands 6-2 and weighs about 210 pounds.

"I gained 10 pounds every year I played professionally," Matos said. "Some guys put on like 30 pounds in one year, but I think 10 pounds is better, because your bones age and you stay healthy."

In 2000, the Orioles promoted Matos to the big leagues and predicted big things for him, even though he hit just .225 in 72 games.

In 2001, his health started to desert him. He dislocated his left shoulder in spring training and took more than five months to fully recover from surgery.

In 31 games with the Orioles, he hit .214.

Last spring, Matos broke the hamate bone in his left hand, costing him another two months. He spent most of 2002 at Double-A Bowie, and batted a measly .129 in 17 games with the Orioles.

Gary Matthews had a breakout season in Baltimore, so the Orioles gave him the starting center fielder's job. Matos pretty much fell off the radar screen.

"That's just going to happen," Matos said. "If you're the owner of a company, and someone is always sick, you're not tired of the person, but you start to forget about them."

Matos knew if he ever got another chance, it could be his last one with the Orioles. When Matthews fizzled, batting .204 with a .250 on-base percentage, the club placed him on waivers.

There were plans to put Larry Bigbie in center field, but two nights before the San Diego Padres claimed Matthews on waivers, Bigbie went down with a shoulder injury. Matos was batting .303 for Triple-A Ottawa, leading the International League with 16 doubles, when he got the unexpected promotion.

Hargrove plugged Matos into the lower third of the batting order at first, and after 19 games, the youngster's batting average still hovered above .400. So Hargrove moved Matos into the No. 2 slot, behind Brian Roberts, and the two players who started the season at Triple-A have become a major reason for the Orioles' new-found offensive success.

A year ago, the Orioles had the worst batting average in the American League at .246, and their on-base percentage was .309.

This year, they rank fourth in the AL with a .276 average, and their OBP is 27 points higher than last year at .336.

Realistically, the Orioles would be thrilled to see Matos hit about .280 and keep playing the kind of defense he does.

"He's quiet and he's humble and he plays hard," Orioles first baseman Jeff Conine said. "You can't really ask for anything more than what he's giving right now."

Matos might love math, but he's really not obsessed with his own numbers. He realizes he needs to round into a more complete player, eventually adding power to his game.

His father told him to study the career path of fellow Puerto Rican Bernie Williams. The New York Yankees' center fielder hit .238 at age 22 his first year in the big leagues. He had his first .300 season at 26, his first season with more than 20 home runs at age 27, and won his first batting title at 29.

"The Yankees have kept him his whole career because of his work ethic and his attitude," Matos said. "That's kind of the role model I look at. I just need to fill out my body a little bit more, and stay healthy, too. I think the prime of a player is 27 or 28."

And at the rate he's going now, the Orioles have to be excited about his prime.

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