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For Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop, 'the sky is the limit'

Baltimore Orioles infielder Jonathan Schoop during spring training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.
Baltimore Orioles infielder Jonathan Schoop during spring training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Jonathan Schoop doesn't want to say it, because even the loftiest goals can be met and seem to lack ambition in retrospect. He learned that from his double-play mate, J.J. Hardy, who also doesn't want to say it because it would put undue pressure on Schoop.

Everyone in the Orioles' clubhouse has done the mental math and seems to have an idea of what a breakout season for the 24-year-old Schoop in 2016 will look like. Only Manny Machado will say it.

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"This year, I think he's capable of winning the Gold Glove, and he's capable of winning the Silver Slugger," Machado, Schoop's close friend coming through the organization, said. "He's a special player. He's a very special player, and I think this is the year that everybody's going to see who Jonathan Schoop is."

Schoop was something of a surprise inclusion on the Opening Day roster at age 22 in 2014, playing 137 games because his defense made him a viable major leaguer at the time and he had pop in his right-handed bat. A year ago, Schoop was primed for a leap and opened the season with three home runs in his first nine games before a knee injury robbed him of nearly three months of the season.

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Many use his final line last year as a glimpse of what his ceiling is. He was still eighth among second basemen with 15 home runs, and improved his slash line from .209/.244/.354 in 2014 to .279/.306/.482 in 2015.

He returned in the Orioles' 82nd game of the season — exactly the midpoint — giving him a full second half. That he hit .281/.306/.468 with 12 home runs and 16 doubles in that span gives an easy way to project what a full season would look like. Many are simply doubling his 15 home runs in 86 games and slapping 30-home-run potential on him this season. Even Schoop.

"Everybody, they've compared last year and doubled it, and I had a great year," he said. "It gave me confidence, because when I came back from the knee injury I did so good. It helped me for this season. It helped me for this spring, and it helped me to prepare myself better and helped me to be a better player."

Hardy said that's not a bad tactic to take.

"In my own mind, I think that's helpful to do — I did it when I was younger," Hardy said. "But obviously, pitchers are going to make adjustments."

Schoop says he's adjusting, too. During a Grapefruit League season when Schoop hit .355/.385/.581 with his fourth home run in 22 games during Thursday's finale, he showed improvement in his plate discipline. In an admittedly small sample size, and against pitchers who aren't feeding him the steady diet of breaking balls he's liable to see in the regular season, Schoop's 4.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate this spring was roughly half his career average of 8.83-1.

"I feel like I'm selecting a lot better," Schoop said. "I'm better than two years ago. I'm better than last year. I'm swinging at more strikes, and eventually, they have to come throw a strike. Three years ago, I was helping the pitcher a lot. I kind of eliminated that a little bit, but I've still got a long way to get better at it."

"Jon, very seldom do they … get him out a whole lot in the strike zone," manager Buck Showalter said. "It's just trying to take him off the sweet spot of the bat with some movement, and some deception, and some balance issues.

"I've loved the way they've concentrated on it. Now, we go to the next level, if you can carry it over into the season. It would be a big asset for us if we could get better at it."

The game could also adjust for Schoop. In 2015, his batting average on balls in play was .329 — 80 points higher than his BABIP in 2014. It's unclear whether a regression to the league-average of around .300 is to be expected, though a pessimist could look at the near-identical rise in batting average and BABIP and say some of those hits won't fall in 2016.

Generally, batters who hit the ball harder than usual have more fall in for hits, and Schoop does that. But with just two full seasons under his belt, it's unclear whether his 2014 BABIP of .249, last year's, or somewhere in between is Schoop's norm. Most statistical forecasts have Schoop batting around 250 with a .720 OPS and 16 home runs.

But the type of production many see for Schoop, who will be hitting near the bottom of a lineup, where he can ambush any poor pitcher who tries to sneak a fastball past him, is mostly the kind that can't be fielded: home runs.

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He believes that if he's healthy, his season will play out the way everyone hopes.

"If I show I can play the whole year, the numbers are going to be there," Schoop said. "I'd like to set a lot of goals, because like J.J. taught me, if you set for one goal, you say you want to hit 20 [home runs], you hit 20 and say, 'I should hit more.' You're never going to be satisfied with it."

Said Machado: "The sky is the limit."

"He's a player that hasn't shown what he's really capable of. He's a guy that's a five-tool guy. He can run, he can steal, he can hit for power, he can hit for contact," Machado said. "He's learning how to hit the ball the other way, and if he can learn how to hit the ball the other way, he can be one of the best second basemen in the league."

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