After a rookie season full of ups and downs, Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop wanted to spend this offseason focused on self-improvement.
He found that opportunity back home in Curacao, where he spent the offseason training with a local soccer team to improve his agility. Instead of fielding grounders, Schoop dribbled a ball around cones.
Soccer is big in Curacao, and was Caribbean island's most popular sport until a wave of players made it to the majors, a path blazed by slugger Andruw Jones and, more recently, a talented group of young middle infielders that includes Schoop, Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, Texas Rangers second baseman Jurickson Profar and New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius. Now baseball is just as popular there.
But most kids, like the 23-year-old Schoop, grew up playing both sports. And from his days playing soccer as a kid, he knew it could help him get in better shape. He dropped 10 pounds from his tall frame in the offseason, going from 235 to 225.
"The field was just a five-minute bike ride from my house," Schoop said. "You know you have to be in shape before you have to run for 90 minutes. The drills I did were to make my agility better. It's running with quick feet. You stop and go there, run, dribble, pass. I didn't do it because I wanted to lose weight, because last year I wasn't feeling bad or anything. But I want to do something to get better.
"I want to be better than last year. That's my goal. No matter how I do it, I want to get better every year. Everybody wants to improve here, and I want to be a better player than last year. I feel like if I do those things, I'll get better."
At last year's spring training, Schoop was expected to start the season at Triple-A Norfolk, but a strong spring — he hit .385 in Grapefruit League play — earned Schoop a roster spot. He filled in at third base for injured teammate Manny Machado for the first month of the season before assuming the starting role at second base, where he made 102 starts.
Schoop's strong defense allowed the Orioles to stick with him throughout some difficult times at the plate. Schoop hit just .209, struck out 122 times and drew 13 walks in 481 plate appearances.
But he also hit 16 homers, showing a power stroke rare for middle infielders. Six of those homers gave the Orioles the lead, including two off Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka that broke scoreless ties at Yankee Stadium.
Last season included its share of adversity for Schoop, but his immense talent, eagerness to learn and desire to get better have the Orioles eager to see what the 23-year-old can do in his second full big league season.
"You notice the little things," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "But with Jon … he never assumes anything. He's always got a great grip on it. Every day he's in the big leagues, he's going to approach it like it's a gift, an honor. I love his makeup. We went through some growing pains offensively last year. We'll see what return we get for it. He's been pretty locked in here offensively" in spring training.
Schoop enters Sunday's B game against the Pittsburgh Pirates second on the club in total bases this spring (nine), with two doubles and a homer in six games. Schoop said he also feels lighter on his feet in the field.
"I think I feel better," Schoop said. "I feel better moving around. You're not carrying as much weight. You have more range, I think. You can also put more speed on base. That's how I think. I feel it. I feel stronger from losing weight. Less weight, I feel like I can run better."
The Orioles also have seen the difference his offseason work has made on defense. He has shown more agility, covered more ground and had a quicker first step. Showalter recently said that Schoop seemingly makes one great defensive play a game in Grapefruit League play.
"One of the things he didn't do well for us last year, and he didn't do well in the minor leagues when I had him, is go back on pop-ups, going back on balls over his head," said Orioles third base and infield coach Bobby Dickerson, who worked with Schoop in the minors as the team's infield coordinator. "He's already gone back on two. He went back on one the other day. He came out of nowhere to get to it. He didn't get close to those balls last year.
"Those are outs that turn the lineup over. And I've been harping on him since he was in rookie ball, those extra outs let [good hitters] hit again. … And he knows if he handles the ball in his range fine, if he can take a few more steps, add a little more range and get a few more extra outs that he wasn't getting before, he can be much better. And he's shown it."
Those little things can make Schoop, already a good defender, a great one. The Orioles rave about what he can do around the second base bag, especially for someone who's 6 foot 3. Dickerson contends that the way Schoop turns a double play, with how he pivots and shows his arm strength, is the best in baseball.
"You can tell he looks a little different," Showalter said. "He was pretty good last year. I thought he was the best second baseman in the league defensively. Who's better? I think this year, if he's with us playing second base every day, he'll contend for a Gold Glove. He's still growing, little by little."
Having J.J. Hardy, who has won three straight Gold Gloves at shortstop, next to Schoop has eased his transition to the big leagues. Dickerson uses Hardy to point out the right way to play defensively, and Hardy is always willing to give Schoop some veteran advice.
"It's fun working with him because he has such a good time," Hardy said. "He keeps me feeling a little bit younger … or maybe it makes me feel older. One of the two. But it's fun watching him work because he does it with purpose. Buck talks about doing everything with purpose to get better, and he definitely does that."
At the plate, Schoop most needs to improve his discipline, which will help raise his batting average and lower his strikeout total.
"Of course, I want to show that I can hit more for average," Schoop said. "I think I have to swing at more strikes. I'm not going to go in there and trying to walk, because I don't think I'm that type of hitter. I like to swing the bat, but if I can calm that a little bit and only swing at strikes, I'll be better. I'll cut down on my strikeouts a little bit more. I think strikeouts are going to come regardless, but I've just got to swing at strikes. Of course, you're going to swing at some balls, but try to minimize that and good things will happen. … But if you stay focused on every pitch, every play, good things will happen."
Schoop said he hopes having a full year of experience in the majors will help. Now that he has seen major league pitching, he's more familiar with the pitchers he'll face and what they'll try to do to get him to chase balls outside the strike zone.
"You've got to think about the game," Schoop said. "Don't just go in there open-minded and just swing. You can be aggressive, but you've got to recognize situations, what they're trying to do with you, what they're trying to accomplish. If they throw you the opposite [of what you're expecting], you just have to tip your hat and go in. But don't get yourself out."
Hardy said Schoop's offensive improvement is already evident this spring.
"Just his first couple of at-bats this year in spring training, you see him laying off sliders that he swung at all year last year," Hardy said. "And he's aware of that type of stuff. He comes up to me and he'll let me know. He'll say, 'You see me lay off those sliders? I spit on those.' He's aware of what he's doing, and I think he understands, too, that the sky's the limit. He can be really, really good. He expects it right now. He thinks he should be … I think he has the chance to be very, very good. He's young, and it takes some time."