The Tigers Signed Jonathan Schoop and It’s Actually Kind of Interesting

Amidst the blizzard of free agent deals announced last Friday, Jonathan Schoop re-signed with the Detroit Tigers. It’s a one-year deal worth $4.5 million per Jeff Passan and, as far as I can glean, there are no performance incentives.

The second baseman is coming off of a productive 2020, when he hit .278/.324/.475 (114 wRC+) while racking up 1.4 WAR in just 44 games. Despite that, his salary for the upcoming year is actually a small cut from the $6.1 million contract he signed last winter, though he’ll wind up earning more money in 2021 than the prorated earnings he accrued in last year’s shortened season.

You probably haven’t thought all that much about Schoop lately. If he wasn’t on your fantasy squad or real-life team of choice, you may have a vague impression of him as a once-promising Oriole who gradually faded into irrelevance. At a glance, that’s about right. He had a breakout campaign as a 25-year-old back in 2017, when he made the All-Star team, notched 3.7 WAR, homered 32 times, and posted career highs in just about every offensive category. A slow start the following year spiraled into a miserable summer after a mid-season trade to Milwaukee. Minnesota picked him up for 2019, where he played a competent if forgettable second base before ultimately losing his job to Luis Arraez. Soon after, he signed on with the Tigers and all of the obscurity that that implies.

But while the broad strokes of that narrative ring true, Schoop has quietly been a decent player over the past two seasons. It’s not that the numbers lie; it’s just that with the 2020 season, and Schoop in particular, you have to do a little more legwork than usual. If you’re like me and are somewhat accustomed to lazily looking at that WAR column on the far right of our player pages and moving on, what you see isn’t all that impressive.

A different framing adds more nuance. Schoop’s WAR totals are depressed in part because of a lack of playing time, first because of Arraez and then due to an unusually newsworthy virus. Over his last two seasons, Schoop has only batted 620 times, which is about a full season’s worth of plate appearances. In that time, he’s posted a 104 wRC+ while fighting second base to a draw, a performance that’s actually been good for nearly 3 WAR. His 45 games last year were particularly strong, and while you can’t just prorate his numbers from that weird year over 162 games and call him a four-win player, he was one of the league’s five to 10 most productive second baseman last season. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

The biggest problem for Schoop, and the main reason his market was so slow this winter, is that there’s very little to dream on with him. In an era where teams are willing to offer good money at the first sign of a breakout, Schoop’s steady and somewhat quirky game is fuori moda. He never walks, doesn’t run the bases well, and probably won’t hit for a high average. He plays an adequate second base, lines a ball into the third row of the left field bleachers once a week, and makes enough contact the rest of the time to keep everything glued together. The overall package is of an average regular, maybe a Role-55 if you squint. You can understand how it works, but it’s a brittle profile with little upside.

The picture looks even worse on Statcast, as Schoop’s batted ball metrics are all on the wrong side of league average. He was in the bottom quartile of all players in exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and xWOBA, and he’s not much better in xSLG and barrel % (a quick and dirty estimate of how often a player makes the kind of contact that produces extra base hits). Schoop’s made a career of over-performing Statcast’s expectations, even more so last year than usual, but there’s nothing that’ll make an analyst bang their fist on the table here.

Still, there’s an argument to be made for stable competence. As a whole, major league teams are increasingly gambling on upside; there’s never been a better time for a player to have a small-sample breakout, particularly if he’s got a new pitch, a steeper launch angle, or the name ‘Drew.’ There’s nothing wrong with that: Teams should try to unearth impact talent. As with any strategy though, there are risks in chasing breakout candidates. It’s not just that you may lose money betting that the last 25 innings of Drew Smyly’s life say more about him than the previous thousand; it’s that while teams focus on trying to catch the next star, they may overlook the perfectly good player lying in plain sight. Something is always going to be undervalued in the baseball economy, and right now adequacy may well be that something.

To sum it all up: Schoop never quite blossomed into the star his 2017 season suggested was possible, but if you can forgive two lousy months with the Brewers, he’s been perfectly solid ever since. There are a few red flags in his plate discipline and batted ball numbers, but those flags have always been part of the package, and they aren’t glowing any brighter. At 29 years old, there’s not much growth to project on, but also no indication he’s slowing down. He’s coming off of a wrist sprain that cost him the last fortnight of the 2020 season, but he’s otherwise been very durable. ZiPS has him as a two-win player in 135 games. If you’re nervous about the wrist injury, perhaps you’re a little bearish on that. If you think ZiPS is maybe not giving him enough credit for durability, you can justify feeling more bullish. I’m in the latter camp, but reasonable people can disagree here.

Without Schoop, the Tigers were going to be on the wrong side of a top-heavy division; with him, the lay of the land isn’t much different. Schoop does project to lead his team in homers and slugging, and while that’s a brutal start to this sentence, it says more about his teammates than Schoop himself. Were this 2015, I’d make a pithy comment about how this may take Detroit from 70 wins to 72 or 73 and move on.

The tanking era has given me a new appreciation for this kind of transaction, however. The Tigers will have enough young pitching to be worth watching next season. Perhaps we’ll even have a Spenser Torkelson sighting. While we’re watching those games, it’s nice that guys like Schoop and Robbie Grossman will be around as a bridge between club legends new and old and the flotsam at the bottom of the order.

Finally, there’s also something to be said for the price point of this move. Last year, Craig Edwards ran a study on how much teams were paying per WAR on the free agent market, and arrived at an average of $8.6 million over the previous three seasons. Teams have been stingier this winter, but even by a lower financial standard, Schoop doesn’t even have to play well to earn his keep. There’s a decent chancers he offers a lot of bang for these four-and-a-half million bucks, enough so that you wonder why nobody tried to beat Detroit to the punch.





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dbminn
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dbminn

Thanks Brendan – a thoughtful article. The Tigers are making progress with their SP prospects. Seems reasonable to have some cheap, competent position players around as they start their careers.