Jonathan Schoop Has Been One of the Best Second Basemen

The Orioles won again on Wednesday, continuing their surge back into the wild-card race. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Jonathan Schoop knocked a game-tying first-pitch homer against the admittedly homer-prone Ariel Miranda. Later on, in the bottom of the eighth, Schoop laced a tie-breaking first-pitch single against Marc Rzepczynski. Schoop was only one of the Orioles’ heroes, but they presumably wouldn’t have won without him.

As the Orioles have shaken off their slump, observers around the league have begun to notice. It was only weeks ago one wondered whether the team might elect to sell off Zach Britton, and more. There was even a little chatter about a trade of Manny Machado. The club now has three more wins than losses, and Machado’s drawn praise for his big second half. Dylan Bundy, too, is getting the spotlight treatment for his possible August breakout. Even Kevin Gausman has received plaudits for turning his season around. But you know who leads the 2017 Orioles in overall WAR? It’s Schoop, and it’s Schoop by the better part of a win. While Machado is still the best player on the roster, Schoop’s own progress shouldn’t be overlooked.

Schoop has been an interesting player for a while, because he’s a player capable of hitting homers like this:

The raw power is in there, and it’s substantial. That much has been evident for years. What’s held Schoop back in the past has been his approach. Schoop was one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball, and while you don’t want to remove that aggressiveness from a hitter entirely, Schoop swung too much. He swung too much, without the right idea of how he was going to be attacked.

This season has been different. Few players have so dramatically changed their approaches. Even though Schoop’s two big hits on Wednesday came against the first pitch, I should note that he’s dropped his first-pitch swing rate by 12 points, relative to last season. Only Aaron Hicks has dropped his rate by more. Schoop isn’t going up there so over-eager to get the bat off his shoulder.

And there’s more, plenty more. I looked at every hitter who’s batted at least 250 times in each of the last two seasons. Schoop has had the biggest drop in his rate of swings at pitches out of the zone. That’s good! Schoop has also had the second-biggest drop in his rate of swings at pitches in the zone. That’s…well, that can go either way. You don’t want to swing at every strike, but you also don’t want to let too many of them go by.

Put simply, Schoop is a lot more patient. That much is obvious. The question is, is Schoop more disciplined? Is he more selective, or is he just taking more pitches, regardless of whether they’re strikes? Using data from Baseball Savant, I decided to search for the answer by examining Schoop with two strikes. At that point, discipline is never more important. I looked at Schoop’s two-strike swing rates at would-be strikes and would-be balls. The evidence suggests that Schoop has indeed made a legitimate improvement.

With two strikes, Schoop is treating pitches in the zone the same. This year, he’s swung at those pitches 94% of the time, which is in keeping with his record. And yet, look at the other line. Before, Schoop chased about 54% of the time. His rate this year is just under 43%. To put that in context: Between 2014 – 2016, Schoop’s two-strike chase rates ranked in the 2nd, 8th, and 4th percentiles. This year, he ranks in the 38th percentile. Schoop will still expand — he’s still more aggressive than he is patient — but he’s hitting with a better idea. And his power means he doesn’t have to improve by all that much.

Schoop, then, is a more disciplined hitter. He’s even a more disciplined hitter with his back up against the wall. Here’s how he’s done in two-strike counts, relative to the league average.

Schoop has been better than ever at hitting with two strikes. That’s not the entirety of the improvement — that’s just reflective of the improvement. Schoop is hitting with a better idea and with greater confidence, and his improved selectivity seems to have benefited him the most against left-handed pitchers, who used to succeed against him with changeups. Schoop, this season, has brutalized changeups. Schoop, this season, has brutalized southpaws, which he never used to do.

Schoop used to have a reverse platoon split. That’s not the kind of thing you ever expect to keep up, but Schoop had to make his own progress. The split wasn’t going to go away on its own. Through better timing and better pitch selection, Schoop is making himself effectively aggressive, instead of just over-aggressive. Pitchers have to work that much harder, and Schoop can kill the ball on contact.

It doesn’t seem to me as if Schoop has folded in some kind of major mechanical adjustment. Presumably, there have been tweaks — there are always tweaks — but this could be a case of successful coaching. Scott Coolbaugh is the team’s hitting coach. An excerpt, from July:

“And Scott helps me a lot. He gets me on a game plan. Every pitcher that comes in, he says, ‘Schoopy, this guy likes to throw outside. He will show you in, but he won’t throw it for a strike.’ And [with] those kind of things, you go in there with a plan, trying to achieve a plan for you to be successful, not just to go in there and swing. It’s knowing, ‘OK, this guy likes to use his curveball [in a] 2-2 [count]. Be ready for it, but still stick on his fastball.’ Those kind of things, they make you better. Even if you fail, you had a plan in there.”

Coolbaugh has been with the Orioles for a few years, and in the two years previous, he saw Schoop at his most aggressive. I don’t know what might have changed; maybe Coolbaugh has changed his mind about how much he wants Schoop to swing. Maybe Coolbaugh has been saying the same things all along, but it took until now for Schoop to buy into it. Most hitters don’t reach the majors with outstanding and polished plans of attack, and maturity can take years to fully blossom. Whatever the case here, the evidence is striking. For whatever reason, Jonathan Schoop has slowed himself down. He’s looking for pitches and laying off others. He’s doing so even in two-strike counts. He still swings, but he’s better, and he never needed to improve all that much.

Jonathan Schoop, again, leads the 2017 Baltimore Orioles in WAR. Only Jose Altuve has been a clearly superior second baseman. Schoop still seems a little short of elite, but that’s too high a bar to expect. Most players come up short of elite. The elites, by definition, are limited in number. What matters is that Schoop is stringing together better trips to the plate. In large part because of his progress, these Orioles still have something to play for.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

Any news on the Baez front?