As the Orioles offense struggled to gain consistency in the first half of last season, second baseman Jonathan Schoop was one of the few hitters who carried the load, and the result was Schoop’s emergence as one of the American League’s top run producers.
This season has been different for both Schoop and the floundering Orioles. Rain permitting, the team opened a four-game series against the American League East-rival New York Yankees on Thursday night with the second-worst record in the major leagues while averaging 3.7 runs a game, last in the AL.
It has been a frustrating year for Schoop, 26, who has followed up his best season at the plate with one of his most challenging. He started the season slowly and missed 20 games with a right oblique injury, only to see his struggles prolonged through the first two months of the season.
“Players are so talented at this level and there's such a small separator, and when things are going well, you actually — not get away with some things — but you can do no wrong,” manager Buck Showalter said. “When things get going in the other direction, you're always trying to figure out a way to stop that snowball. Jon's trying to do it with one pitch.”
Schoop entered Thursday hitting just .230 with a .633 OPS through the season’s first 56 games, compared with a .288 average and .861 OPS through the same stretch last season.
“Last year, everything was going my way,” Schoop said. “I hit good pitches. I didn’t miss it. Right now, I’m getting myself out. But sometimes I get good pitches to hit, but I’ll fall back or miss it or pop it up. Last year, I got those pitches and I hit them hard and far. Right now, I’m not doing that. I have to be more selective, but it’s tough when you’re struggling and the team’s struggling because you want to go out there and get a hit. But you’ve got to erase that [thinking] and go in there and get good at-bats.”
Schoop acknowledges that he’s probably tried to do too much this season. It pained him to see the Orioles struggle as he and slugger Mark Trumbo were out with injuries, and when Schoop returned, he found himself trying to carry the offense on his shoulders.
“It’s easy to do because you come back and you know your team wasn’t playing good and they miss you and you think you are the savior,” Schoop said. “You go out and try to hit four home runs every day. It’s tough, but everybody is talking to me, ‘Don’t try to be the hero.’ … Sometimes you go in there and try to get four hits in one at-bat. You can only get one hit in one at-bat. So you just have to let it come to you and know everything is going to be fine. I know it’s more mentally than physically.”
Schoop’s average exit velocity is down by nearly 3 mph — from 87.8 mph last season to 85 mph — and his hard-contact rate (balls that come off his bat at 95 mph or faster) is down by 10 percent from 37.2 percent last season to 27.2 percent this season.
“[With] Jon, it's hurtful to watch him, for me, struggle, because I know how much it means to him and how much he takes it internally,” Showalter said. “He'll get it going. He has hit some balls hard. Not many guys have that click sound when he squares the ball up. He had some. He hit the balls real hard in Tampa.”
More so than batted-ball stats, the biggest statistical difference between Schoop this season and last is his poor numbers against off-speed pitching — which is a universal struggle throughout the Orioles lineup as no team sees fewer fastballs.
Last season, Schoop was one of the club’s best hitters against off-speed pitches, hitting .296, but while seeing nearly the same percentage of those pitches this season, he’s batting just .158 against them. His ability to handle off-speed pitches and lay off ones difficult to hit were among the main factors in his breakout season last year.
“I know for sure it will come because I’ve done it already and I know I can hit,” Schoop said. “I’m better than that. The pitchers know I’m better than that, so I need to go out there and show my confidence. I need to show it’s not the same when I’m in the batter’s box, that I can be hitting .100 and they’re still going to see my name and they’re going to respect me and know I can do damage.”
Schoop said he’s spent more time in the batting cage working with hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh and is confident he can turn his season around. He’s leaned on his teammates — who universally share his frustration — for advice. He said some of the best he’s received is from shortstop Manny Machado, who struggled through the first half of last season before rebounding after the All-Star break and is now off to the best start of his career despite the offense’s struggles.
“He explained to me last year he struggled in the beginning of the year worse than me, and he said to come out of it, you just have to believe in yourself and go out there and compete,” Schoop said. “That’s all you can do. … I’ve missed some pitches that I’ve normally hit harder. He told me maybe you’ve missed some but you have to keep working hard and trust yourself.”
Schoop has shown some flashes of emerging from his slump, but hasn’t been able to sustain that momentum. He was 7-for-21 in his first five games off the disabled list, a stretch that included his only multihomer game, in the first game of a doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays on May 12.
He also had a good stretch at the end of the Orioles’ just-completed road trip, going 7-for-21 in a five-game stretch against the White Sox in Chicago and at Tampa Bay. But he followed that with a 1-for-12 showing in the Orioles’ three-game series against the Washington Nationals, including an 0-for-4, three-strikeout game Wednesday night.
Maybe his oblique injury subconsciously altered his swing, Schoop said, but he’s working to regain last year’s feel at the plate.
“Things aren’t going my way right now, but I’ve got to go out there and compete and practice in the cage and do whatever I can do in the cage, and hopefully it transfers in the game sooner or later,” Schoop said. “It did for a couple of days last weekend, but that’s baseball. You’ve got to go out there and compete and try to maintain it.”