Jonathan Schoop broke out last season, a year in which he emerged as the Orioles’ top offensive player and made his first All-Star Game while ranking among leaders in several offensive categories. In a disappointing season that ended with a last-place finish in the American League East, Schoop’s rise offered fans a new star on the horizon.
Those who know the 26-year-old Schoop, however, realize that while he’s proud of last year’s accomplishments, he’s by no means satisfied. As the Orioles’ 2018 season gets underway this week, there is another level that Schoop can reach, and he will make his best effort to get there this year.
“Jon is a guy who is never going to get comfortable,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “He’s a guy who is very in tune with attacking things he wants to get better at.”
If spring training was any indication, a monster season could be in store. Schoop hit seven home runs in 19 exhibition games, nearly one every three games, before he went 0-for-5 on Opening Day. It was the most homers by any Orioles player in spring training in five years since Steve Pearce totaled seven in 2013.
“I think you learn every year,” Schoop said. “Every year is something different. There’s something different you’re going to go through. You try to stay consistent and do the things you do to maintain the things you did last year. Of course you want to get better. Everybody wants to be better. I think I can be better with everything — fielding, hitting, running, everything. I think you never stop improving and I think I have a lot more to go. I’m only 26, I’m still learning and I think I have a lot more room to improve.”
Take away a 2015 season in which Schoop missed nearly three months with a knee injury and his offensive numbers have improved every year, culminating last season, when he set career highs in batting average (.293), on-base percentage (.338), OPS (.841), hits (182), homers (32) and RBIs (105).
“And if you [take a look], just about all of his columns have increased every year, including the walks and everything else,” Showalter said. “He’s got a chance to continue to grow.”
The biggest difference in Schoop last season was that he dedicated himself to being more patient at the plate, refusing to get himself behind in at-bats by chasing breaking balls out of the strike zone. That led to a slight spike in walks – 35 last year compared to 44 in his four previous seasons combined – but also forced opposing pitchers to give Schoop more pitches to hit.
“There’s another level,” Schoop said. “There’s a lot of things to do, a lot of ways for me to improve. I can spit on more pitches, I can still eliminate giving at-bats away. There’s a lot of room to improve, there’s still a lot of me to see because last year was good but I think I can be better.”
Schoop can still lower his strikeout totals – he struck out a career-high 142 times last year. But when Schoop looks at last year, he sees how he finished the season as the team fell out of contention with a disastrous September.
The Orioles lost 19 of their last 23 games, and Schoop had his worst month of the season in September. After a two-hit game on Sept. 3, Schoop had already hit the 30-homer, 100-RBI marks and had an .897 OPS through 137 games. But Schoop hit just .206/.245/.289 in his last 25 games, hitting two homers with four RBIs while striking out 20 times with four walks in 102 plate appearances.
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Schoop went back home to Curaçao in the offseason focused on ensuring that wouldn’t happen again. He said he got in the gym and worked out harder than he ever had in the offseason.
“I tried to get stronger for the season for durability, stronger for September, so when I get there, I’m still in shape,” Schoop said. “I think last year, I broke down a little bit, but I worked a lot harder this offseason than I did last year so that I still have the power to keep going.”
Schoop has traditionally been a first-half player. His career OPS after the All-Star break is .718 compared with .787 in the first half. And his September struggles weren’t isolated to last year. He’s a career .216 hitter from Sept. 1.
With that in mind, Schoop spent the offseason trying to get stronger to not just make it through the whole season physically — he’s played in all but two games the past two seasons — but also to maintain his performance.
“Just push yourself to the limit,” he said. “Last year, I did good and this [offseason] in Curaçao, I was trying to push myself harder. If I did an eight [out of 10] last year, let’s do an 8½ or a nine or something, or even a 10. Just push yourself to the limit.”
Whether Schoop continues his progress in an Orioles uniform beyond the next two seasons remains to be seen. He is under team control for two more years and there have been no recent extension talks to keep him in Baltimore beyond that. This year could be his last playing with two of his best friends on the team — shortstop Manny Machado and center fielder Adam Jones — both of whom are eligible for free agency after this season.
“We like to play hard and have fun,” Schoop said. “I don’t like to think about three years from now, so we just try to enjoy it every day and try to control what we can control and let the business side control what they can control. So in the meantime, you go out there and play hard with them and have fun with them and enjoy each day with them.”