For all of the Baltimore Orioles’ preconceived faults, the American League’s winningest team since 2012 can claim one fact to be true. These boys can hit.
The returns of Chris Davis and Matt Wieters, along with the winter additions of Korean left fielder Hyun Soo Kim and sluggers Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez, have somewhat cast a shadow among the Orioles incumbent contributors from years past. Manny Machado‘s 35 home run, .370 wOBA 2015 season catapulted baseball’s most dynamic third-base glove into the realm of the game’s elite. Adam Jones, despite staving off lingering health issues, yet again proved his understated worth as Baltimore’s clubhouse general, trusted middle-of-the-order bat, and soaring center-field defender.
And all the while, the aforementioned cover of darkness has managed to blanket one player in particular, for reasons both fair and incredulous. That man being 24-year-old second baseman Jonathan Schoop.
The 6’1″, 225 lbs. Schoop is an anomaly amongst the middle infield. With legs rivaling tree trunks and an abnormally robust upper-body, Schoop the specimen oozes enticement. Schoop inherited second base in 2014, a rookie season that included a lowly .209/.244/.354 slash, though his 16 home runs in 137 games prompted a suspicion there was more to come. And there was.
In 2015, Schoop raced to a very hot start before a Pablo Sandoval slide in the middle of April knocked him out of the O’s lineup until early July. Schoop rallied to end last season with a .279/.306/.482 slash, and once again, the power was in ample supply. In only 86 games, Schoop knocked 15 home runs and 39 RBIs, nearly doubling his 2014 wRC+ from 64 to 112.
The Orioles should be pleased in the manner of Schoop’s major-league maturation in only 228 games. While bulky, Schoop’s proven his irregular size is more a benefit than a detriment. Though not the rangiest second baseman in baseball, he is a vacuum to the routine and not-so-casual play up the middle, and coincidentally, identifies impeccably with the Baltimore lineup.
Still, the one aspect of Schoop’s game that remains a source of hoped improvement is his discipline at the plate. The young Curacoan has tallied a career 24.8 strikeout percentage and 2.8 walk percentage in his two seasons with the Orioles, caused by an inflated 42.6 O-Swing percentage. Rather simply, Schoop swings at everything, a strategy that needs to be tweaked. So far this spring, Schoop has shown incremental improvements in dialing down at the plate.
In 10 Grapefruit League games, Schoop has picked up where he left off. Already slashing .385/.410/.577 with one home run and four runs batted in, Schoop is creating effective contact, and even more, showing that slight improvement the Orioles are yearning for. In a strange twist however, his continued development at the plate doesn’t appear to be a traditional matter of simply taking more balls.
Schoop’s trademark is a prodigious, encompassing swing that can’t help but to be noticed. In the the two years prior, the Orioles’ second baseman seemed to have the “go hard or go home” mindset at the plate, meaning he was going to aim for the fences, no matter the outcome. In limited spring training action, Schoop has abandoned his previous tactics, opting for an actual, mindful approach.
Though Schoop possesses rare power to all fields for a second baseman, his success hinders on his opportunities to square his hips and slug the ball to left field.
In the limited game action MLB.tv has aired in regards to Jonathan Schoop and the Orioles, we’ve seen a player that has, from time to time, abandoned the temptations of the get rich or die tryin’ swing. Against the Philadelphia Phillies’ Severino Gonzalez, Schoop previewed such a notion.
Gonzalez starts Schoop with a fastball somewhat middle-away, taking the pitch for a strike.
Gonzalez follows with an equal offering, and though Schoop has it lined up, he fouls the pitch straight back. Down 0-2, Schoop, a player with a less-than-average 73.1 career contact percentage, would seem to be a candidate for a swing and a miss to conclude the at-bat. However, Schoop manages to foul off a changeup on the inner-half to extend the action. A less experienced Schoop waves through the diving changeup on his back leg, but this version of himself prolongs his stay in the box.
The next pitch is an 0-2 mistake from Gonzalez, a 91-mph fastball right down the pipe that Schoop scorches past a three-man left side of the infield for a single.
While an 0-2 base hit is no reason to suddenly cling to his coattails, something as simple as an extended at-bat is what the Orioles are looking for. By seeing just one more pitch, Schoop forces Gonzalez to execute one more pitch, something he was unable to do. Having a reputation of a free-swinger, Schoop is going to be prone to more breaking balls and changeups, though another aspect of Schoop’s improvement lies in his understanding of how he is going to be pitched.
Against the New York Yankees’ Anthony Swarzak, Schoop is again challenged on the outside corner in the first pitch of the sequence, taking a well-placed strike.
Schoop is undeterred however, toasting a backup slider down the third base line for a double.
Again, this is a situation where Schoop may have flailed at a mismanaged slider in the past. And while this is a pitch that could have sent over the fence with a Thor-like effort, Schoop is under control, allowing the bat head to labor for him. More than ever does he have the look “it” of an above-average big-league hitter.
Such a small sample size in spring training doesn’t allow us to gauge whether or not these are indeed real tweaks or just timely swings, but for a player whose previous two years were filled with boom or bust plate appearances, a conscious understanding of who he is certainly a highlight in an otherwise boring month.
Schoop is such a strong young man who seems to be identifying just how titanic his power his, and yet, his swing has a renewed grace. A rare Orioles’ homegrown talent is very much a wild card, and if you’ve ever watched the Orioles play, then you know Schoop is literally, and figuratively, a joker.
Often a player will be targeted for improvement in certain areas, only to maintain their imperfections. Adam Jones won’t change from swinging at sliders off the plate if that means he’ll continue to knock 25-plus home runs every year. However, Schoop is not Jones. At least not for long, perhaps.