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Orioles' Jonathan Schoop searches for form at the plate that made him an All-Star a year ago

This time last year, Jonathan Schoop received word he was heading to his first career All-Star Game, the highlight of a breakout season that everyone in the Orioles organization took joy in because of the hard work Schoop put in in rising through the ranks after being an unheralded international signing from Curacao to become the game’s top run-producing second baseman in 2017.

That success has been replaced by soul-searching, as Schoop’s season-long struggles at the plate have been synonymous with the Orioles’ general offensive decline this season. His numbers have taken a steady dive, and now he sits midway into the season hoping each day can serve as a building block to climb himself out of his rut at the plate.

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A recent rest seems to have helped. After receiving a three-day break out of the starting lineup, Schoop has been 8-for-20 over the past five games, a stretch that included his second two-homer game of the season on two of his most well-hit balls of the season Thursday night at Target Field. But that’s a small sample size, and Schoop knows he will have to put together more than that to turn his season around in the second half.

“If you don’t believe in yourself, who else is going to believe in you?” Schoop said. “I know I’m better than this, and I’m going to get it sooner or later. And when I get it, it won’t stop. … I’ve gotten my outs already in the first half [of the season]. I’ve gotten my outs, so the second half is my time. I’m going to go out there and punish them like I didn’t in the first half.”

Even after his recent success, Schoop has just a .212/.253/.379 slash line. He has just 23 RBIs this season, fewer than the 25 he recorded in June 2017 alone on his way to a career-best 105-RBI season.

Schoop’s season has been an unfortunate sequence of ill-timed events. Coming off a strong spring training during which he hit seven exhibition home runs, he started his regular season slowly, was sidelined with an oblique strain that cost him three weeks — unable to swing a bat for 10 days — and his struggles continued after returning.

For a free swinger like Schoop — he ranks fifth in the American League in swing percentage (56.2 percent) over the past five seasons — it has spelled a frustrating year in which he’s spent most of 2018 digging himself out of a hole.

“This is really different,” Schoop said. “Last year we were talking about me being an All-Star and this year we’re talking about me struggling. Nobody says every year is going to be the same. That’s why you want to work hard and you want to minimize the struggle and the success you want to see it more. I’m getting better every day, working with [hitting coach Scott] Coolbaugh and trying to find a way, find a way to get back up and get back to the player I was.”

Other than his batting average — and the results that have come from it — Schoop’s peripheral statistics aren’t extremely different from last season. He’s striking out about the same, and his walk rate is slightly down from last season but still higher than the years before than when Schoop was more of a free swinger. He’s making just as much contact as he was last season, even though he has been swinging slightly more often at pitches outside the strike zone (39.3 percent) than last year (35.9 percent).

It was no coincidence that last year’s breakout season also represented Schoop’s most disciplined season — his 52.6 percent swing percentage was the lowest of his career. This season, his swing rate is up to 56.2 percent, a number that’s equally spread among pitches in and out of the strike zone.

Coolbaugh said that’s enough to make a big difference in results, and said that in early-count situations — 0-0, 1-0, 0-1, 1-1 counts — Schoop is swinging at more pitches that extend at-bats into the pitcher’s favor.

“He’s doing a lot more swing-and-miss, swing and fouling off pitches in those counts that he typically doesn’t swing and miss or foul off as much,” Coolbaugh said. “It’s a whole lot different than last year. I think there’s 80 at-bats in there this year in 0-0 or 1-0 [counts] where he’s either swung and missed or fouled off those pitches. Why is that? Are those actually strikes? Is he forcing that? Those are the things you’re asking yourself. Are those pitches in the zone or are those pitches he’s trying to force because he hasn’t gotten off to a [good] start from a result standpoint? I think it’s a combination.”

The biggest difference in Schoop’s numbers this season is that he’s made softer contact when he does connect. His hard-hit percentage is just 24.5 percent, compared with a 36.1 last season, according to FanGraphs. According to Baseball Savant data, Schoop’s barrel rate is down from 7.0 percent to 4.4 and his lowest in the four years of StatCast research. Last season, he recorded 34 barreled balls, ranking 62nd in the majors, and this year he has just nine, which is 112th.

“I didn’t feel like I was squaring many balls up,” Schoop said. “Last year, I was squaring up every ball. Even in spring training, I was squaring balls up good. Not every year is the same; you have to see what you’re doing wrong to adjust and this game is about adjustments. I wasn’t squaring balls up but [Wednesday] I think I started so I don’t want to think about it anymore. The more you think about it, the deeper you get into. I got my outs already, and from this time on, this is my time. This is my time to get my success going.”

An oblique injury forced Schoop to miss 20 games from mid-April to early May, and even though Schoop maintains he’s been healthy and pain-free since his return, he’s been told that maybe the injury created a hitch in his swing upon his return in that he wasn’t using his lower half to draw his power as he did throughout last season.

“It’s not an excuse that I didn’t hit after the oblique,” Schoop said. “Maybe they told me one time that I wasn’t using my lower half like I was last year. Maybe the oblique caused that change or something. I didn’t feel it so I wouldn’t notice that. I didn’t feel it. It didn’t hurt. Maybe my body changed it, but I feel great. I have no excuse for it.”

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Schoop has more groundouts to the left side of the infield — he has been shifted nearly three times more often this season (16.8 percent) than last year (5.5 percent) — and more weak contact to the opposite field, an indication he’s not using his lower half to draw power and is playing catch-up with his hands, a change that could have been a result of the oblique injury or trying to compensate his swing in other ways.

Coolbaugh said Schoop will tinker with different aspects of his swing when he’s not comfortable at the plate, and that this year, he’s done that a lot trying to find a rhythm, but while trying to find the right feel, he can lose focus on the mental aspect of attacking a pitcher.

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“I think it’s been a combination of things,” Coolbaugh said. “I don’t think you just put your finger on one thing and say it’s this only, because there are things that are similar to what he does when things are going well. I just think consequently, when you come off an injury like the oblique, you lose those 20 games and you try to make up the difference in a short period of time and you get yourself in a rut and you kind of lose that feeling of what you were doing last year.”

Coolbaugh used Thursday’s game in Minnesota as an example. Schoop’s two homers Thursday — his first two-homer game since May 12 — were encouraging. His home runs balls — which had exit velocities of 103.5 and 108.3 mph — were among his 27 most hard-hit balls this season, and they came on consecutive plate appearances. But in his final at-bat of the ninth, he struck out despite getting ahead of closer Fernando Rodney 3-0. He took a called first strike, fouled a second off and swung through a changeup low out of the zone to end the game.

“Hopefully [Thursday’s game] is something he’ll continue to build on and it’s about telling him and reinforcing to him that where he’s at mechanically, he doesn’t have to worry about,” Coolbaugh said. “What he needs to do now is focus his attention [on] what the pitcher is going to do and how to stay in the strike zone better, and even though he’s an aggressive hitter, being able to stay in that moment in that at-bat and pitch by pitch and not let the emotions [take over].”

Manager Buck Showalter has preached patience, telling Schoop not to get caught up in his numbers. He’s used the same explanation with several of his struggling hitters, that while it’s difficult to take solace in a day that includes some patient at-bats but few results — a batting average doesn’t go up on an 0-for-2 day with two walks — that approach will eventually lead to success.

“It doesn’t always take off,” Showalter said. “You can’t get caught up in that instant gratification thing. It’s really easy to say and it’s hard to do. Think about the frustration level when you know it’s there. … I told him the other day, you’ve got half the season left . As challenging as the first half’s been, it can be just as good in the second half, but not if you’re looking at it where you’ve only had a good night if you’ve had four hits trying to make up all the ground in one night.”

Schoop hopes his recent stretch is the beginning of something sustainable, even though he’s struggled previously to lengthen previous stretches this season, which is the opposite of last year, when Schoop was one of the team’s most consistent hitters.

“You have to be mentally strong,” Schoop said. “That’s why this game is sometimes tougher mentally than physically. You look at your stats and you say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get out of it. I want to get out of there. I want to [reverse] something that’s happened for 200 at-bats.’ You can’t do it like that. You have to do it one [at bat] at a time. And you’re eventually going to get there. I know for sure I’m going to get it sooner than later and when I get it, it’s not going to stop.”

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