Orioles All-Star Jonathan Schoop emerging from under the radar

Jonathan Schoop was never the big dog coming up through the Orioles organization. He wasn’t some international free-agent bonus baby whose path to greatness was set before the day he signed. When he arrived from the tiny Caribbean island Curaçao and first reported to the club’s Dominican academy for his initial taste of professional baseball at age 16, he was one of many projects looking to get noticed.

Even now, despite putting up some of the best run production numbers of any middle infielder in the game, Schoop still isn’t discussed in the same breath as some of the game’s top young talent. His emergence has been lost in the Orioles’ first-half collapse, but maybe being named an All-Star can start to change that.

Schoop will be the Orioles’ sole representative in Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Marlins Park in Miami, a fitting reward for a season in which the 25-year-old has taken his game to another level. The spectacle of the midsummer classic will be different for Schoop, so he has leaned on teammates for advice.

“The emotion still hasn’t hit me yet,” Schoop said Friday before the Orioles’ game in Minnesota. “I see I’m an All-Star and I’m happy and excited about it, but I think it’s when I go there that the emotion is going to be there. … I want to enjoy it. You never know if you’re going to be with that kind of group again. That’s why I’ve asked Manny [Machado], I’ve asked Jonesy [Adam Jones] what to expect and what to do. … I want to do everything I can do so I can enjoy it — me and my family — have fun and then come back strong for the second half.”

Schoop’s 17 homers entering Saturday were tied for most in the majors by a second baseman — the Seattle MarinersRobinson Cano and Texas Rangers’ Rougned Odor also had 17. But Schoop’s 40 extra-base hits as a second baseman, including 23 doubles, were the most of any American League player at the position. Schoop hit his 18th homer Saturday, but did so as a shortstop.

In an Orioles lineup decimated by injuries and inconsistency, Schoop has remained consistent, which is undoubtedly the biggest improvement in his game.

Schoop fits the Orioles’ power-packed lineup in that he’s going to be aggressive and hit for power. He recently moved up into the No. 3 spot in the batting order after spending most of his career in the lower part of the lineup. But this season he has shown more patience, and because of that, his walk total (19) is already just two off of last year’s season total (21) and his .349 on-base percentage is 54 points higher than his career mark. Not only is Schoop holding back on pitches he can’t do damage with, he’s also taking advantage of the ones he can by shortening up his swing.

“You see it with a lot of good hitters,” Orioles designated hitter Mark Trumbo said. “His pitch selection has really improved quite a bit. He’s laying off a lot of pitches in the dirt, but more than anything, what makes a hitter successful is not missing the pitches he does get. And one thing I think he’s done an excellent job [at], he’s been on time — when he does get a pitch to hit, he puts it in play. When he does get a good pitch to hit, he’s going to hit it pretty hard. If you watch, he’s done an excellent job with his timing. It makes it really tough on the pitcher because he can handle both the fastball and he’s a good breaking ball hitter, too. If he lays off those pitcher’s pitches, you really have no choice but to come to him. I think that’s one thing I’ve seen this year.”

From ‘second guy’ to All-Star

Schoop’s development has taken him a far cry from where he was nine years ago. He was a wiry shortstop and the $90,000 bonus the Orioles gave him was barely a dip in the pool of international free agency. Even though Schoop’s native island was still largely under the radar, his countryman Jurickson Profar received a $1.55 million signing bonus from the Rangers the same year.

“He’s not this big haughty high-profile Latin sign that everybody in baseball in the world knew about,” said Orioles third base coach Bobby Dickerson, who worked at the team’s Dominican academy when Schoop was there. “We are fortunate to have him and his makeup has definitely made him the player he is. And it’s been a rough ride if you think about it. He’s always been the second guy everywhere he’s been. Profar was the guy, the best prospect in baseball. … It’s just awesome that he’s a major league All-Star from coming down from the Dominican academy, sleeping 14 in a room, trying to get his way out of there.”

Adjusting to life away as a teenager was difficult, mainly because he had always been used to being around family, but Schoop can say that his time in the Dominican academy formed a strong foundation for his future success.

“It was tough because I was from Curaçao,” Schoop said. “I am a family guy, I had to be away from my family. I was 16, turning 17 years old. So I had to worry about myself. I had to grow up. I had to become a man already at 16 years old, being all by myself and having to learn how to carry myself. It was tough, but it helped me out a lot. … When I look back, I learned a lot. … I learned to be a man. You have to learn how to be a man first. You’re alone, you have no mom and dad. The brothers you have, they are your teammates. They are your family. You have to learn how to be a man. You have to learn how to do everything for yourself.”

Now that he’s an established big leaguer, he can be close to his family again, to the point that sometimes he has so many family members at his home in Baltimore that four mattresses are spread across the floor so everyone can sleep. Over the past four years, extended family members have been able to watch Schoop play, and his contingent in the players’ family section of Camden Yards is regularly one of the largest. This year, an uncle on his father’s side had the opportunity to watch Schoop play for the first time.

“They don’t care where they sleep,” Schoop said. “I have a house, four rooms, and sometimes there’s seven people. So sometimes we take mattresses and we sleep down [on the floor]. That’s how close we are. I don’t have to get a hotel for anybody. We find a way to sleep, we find a way to get along. … When my uncles get to see me, they tell me, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve seen in my life.’ That makes me proud. That makes me happy.”

Coming up through the Orioles organization, Schoop played in the shadow of Machado, who was the team’s can’t-miss first-round draft pick the year after Schoop signed. They both played shortstop, and they competed for the starting shortstop position going into the 2011 season at Low-A Delmarva. Machado won out, and Schoop moved to third, but also saw time at short. As Machado’s star grew, the Orioles still debated where Schoop would fit in, and he eventually settled in at second base. When Machado received his big league call-up in August 2012, it served as motivation that Schoop too could make it to the majors.

“I said to myself, ‘You know, I’ve got a chance here if I work hard and do my thing to make the big leagues and do more,’” Schoop said. “It was good competition with Manny. He helped me out because I got better by playing with him. I think for sure he got better playing with me. … It was always together, ‘Let’s help each other get better.’”

And now Machado can’t be happier to see Schoop become an All-Star.

“I’m beyond excited,” Machado said. “I know how much he’s worked to get here and all the struggles he’s been through just to get to the big leagues and now just the opportunity to represent his country, represent himself, represent himself and his family in the All-Star Game, it’s unbelievable. I can’t be more excited that he’s going to be able to participate in it and enjoy it. … And to finally see what he’s turning into as a player, it’s unbelievable to watch — as a hitter, as a second baseman, just his overall play. He’ll take walks when he needs to take.

“His game has gone to another level and finally other players and teams and coaches are finally seeing it and giving him a chance to represent this organization and represent himself in a good way.”

Figuring things out

Schoop has made incremental progress since his major league debut late in 2013, and his power numbers have increased every year except for 2015, when he missed more than two months with a knee injury. Last season, Schoop finished with 25 homers — he was one of six Orioles who had at least 22 homers in 2016 — but like most of the Orioles sluggers, he was prone to deep slumps last season.

Last season, Schoop had a similarly strong first half, hitting .304 with an .847 OPS, 14 homers and 52 RBIs. But he faded in the second half, batting just .225 with 204-point dip in his OPS. But Schoop said he has become a more disciplined hitter this season, something he credited to work with hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh.

“My first year, I was just going out there and swing, but I’ve gotten better and better,” Schoop said. “I still have a lot of room to grow and room to get better. … I think it’s [getting] more at-bats, getting more confidence. 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.”

Former Orioles second baseman and current MLB Network analyst Bill Ripken has been a longtime admirer of Schoop, initially because of the way he patrols second base for a player with a 6-foot-1 frame. Ripken notices the little things that can be easily overlooked. For example, Schoop’s positioning on the bag, the efficient way he tags runners and a double-play pivot — the way he bears down on the bag and rifles a throw to first — that Ripken said is unparalleled in the game.

“You’re sitting there and you’re looking at some of this young talent in the game and because Jonathan doesn’t go out there and fly all over the yard per se, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t notice the good things that happen,” Ripken said. “Is he one of those guys who have to watch every day a little bit more maybe than somebody else to truly appreciate him? I’ll give you that, but the fact is when you do watch it and if you don’t appreciate it, you’re not watching the right stuff.”

While this is Schoop’s first All-Star Game, Ripken said he doesn’t see how the Orioles second baseman won’t remain in the conversation in years to come.

“I don’t see why we don’t have him in the perennial All-Star consideration,” Ripken said. “He’s what, on pace for hitting around 30 [homers] this year? Is that going to happen every single year? It could, but there’s no reason to think that 25 is not a magic number for him. You think about where he is and what he’s doing and you can almost, you can see his confidence at home plate. If you could see almost an aura bubble around him, you can see that he’s a little bit different looking right now because I think he’s recognizing pitches well.

“Is there any reason we can’t think about him hitting 25-30 every single year and 90-100 RBIs? Because I think he’s put himself in a spot in the lineup where he’s going to have some opportunities, so I think the perennial All-Star conversation as one of the best second basemen in the league should be talked about in regards of his future and not be overlooked.”

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