There are just over three weeks left in the sinking ship that is the 2015 Baltimore Orioles season. There's not much to be happy about these days, but I'm going to attempt to ignore the fact that the team as a whole is bad, and try to focus on the good instead. We've written at length about Manny Machado's transformation into a star, Zach Britton's continued dominance at closer, etc. But one player who's flown somewhat under the radar this year, especially nationally, is Jonathan Schoop.
As a 22-year-old rookie in 2014, Schoop had a strange season. After some early struggles in the field playing third base while Manny Machado recovered from injury, Schoop found a home at second base and became half of what was probably the best fielding double play duo in baseball. He was overmatched at the plate, however, posting a comically low .244 on-base percentage that contributed to a 65 wRC+ on the season. He did flash some serious power, hitting sixteen home runs, a lot of which were no-doubters to his favorite spot, the left field corner. The problem was simple: when he wasn't hitting home runs he was usually striking out (25.4 K%) or making weak contact (.249 BABIP) and not walking much at all (2.7 BB%).
This season has been a different story. Schoop has made only 245 plate appearances due to an early-season injury, but he's made the most of those trips to the plate. He has twelve home runs, a better pace than last season and roughly a 25-30 HR pace over a full season. He's hitting .280/.307/.491, good for a 116 wRC+. The most remarkable part of this is that he's not doing it the way everyone expected or hoped. The narrative for Schoop after last year was that he had tremendous potential and could become a good hitter if he got his plate discipline under control and cut down on the strikeouts, hopefully improving his walk rate in the process. Here's the thing: he's barely done that at all.
His K rate this year is almost identical to last season (24.9%), and the same goes for his walk rate (2.9%). So what's changed? For one thing, luck. His BABIP has increased all the way from .249 to .329, and it's pretty much impossible for it to change that drastically without some luck involved: .249 seems unsustainably low and .329 seems unsustainably high. That said, I don't believe that change is only attributable to luck. Part of Schoop's problem last season was that he wasn't just swinging at a lot of pitches, he was swinging at the wrong pitches. While his O-Swing% (how often he swings at balls) was a full 10% higher than league average at 41.2%, his Z-Swing% (how often he swings at strikes) was pretty close to league average at 70.1% - that's not a good combination. Look at any free-swinging hitter with success at the plate - the reason they can pull it off despite swinging at a lot of balls is that they also swing at a lot of strikes. Schoop wasn't doing that in 2014.
That's not the case this year. His O-Swing% is about the same, actually a little higher at 44%. But his Z-Swing% has skyrocketed. This year it's 83.7%, which is far higher than the league average of around 67%. This is a major reason for Schoop's transformation at the plate, and it makes sense that his BABIP would change because of it. If more of the pitches you're hitting are in the zone, you'll be making harder contact on average, which should lead to more hits and less outs.
This is also promising because he still has room to get better. He's made these strides at the plate without improving his K/BB ratio at all. If he can manage to do that as he matures, he could unlock even more of his potential than he already has. Last season we were talking about improving the second base position at the trade deadline for a potential playoff run. This year, if the O's were in the race, that wouldn't have been necessary - even though he's been a little lucky, Schoop is a bona fide starting-caliber second baseman. Schoop is only 23 and is under team control through 2019. It's a good bet that he'll be playing almost every day in Baltimore for at least the next few years. Even during this disappointing season, that's something to be excited about.