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The Orioles middle infield may not be as good as they think it is

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Both Jonathan Schoop and J.J. Hardy are fan favorites in Birdland. They do come with some downsides, however.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If you ask the average Orioles-follower if they’re hesitant about Jonathan Schoop and J.J. Hardy being the middle infield duo for their ball club, I doubt you’ll find many who would answer with a yes. After all, the Schoop/Hardy duo has been a staple for seemingly forever now (only three years, but who’s counting?) — they’re Baltimore fan-favorites, and for good reason.

Just follow me on Twitter throughout the spring and summer — you’ll see plenty of “I love J.J. Hardy” tweets rolling through your timeline courtesy of yours truly.

With that said, I’m here to do some bubble bursting... sort of.

The idea is simple. The current Orioles middle infield duo contains plenty of sentimental value to fans. But in the grand scheme of things, are Hardy and Schoop in danger of holding the team back in 2017?

The Schoop conundrum

In Major League Baseball, getting on base is rather important. The more runners on base, the more opportunities for runs to be scored and wins to be notched. That’s not exactly baseball rocket science — good players reach base, and said players are valuable assets to a lineup.

Now, let’s preface these next few points by noting that I’m not willing to say Schoop is not a good baseball player. That’s not true. Schoop is supremely talented and has been for quite some time; there’s no arguing that point.

That said, there are reasons to believe — if you’re looking through an analytics lens — that Schoop isn’t much better than a league-average second baseman:

  • His total major league on-base percentage is .283; last year, in 647 plate appearances, his OBP was .298, a number second-worst amongst Oriole batters with at least 50 games (Ryan Flaherty: .291)
  • Schoop has a career 42.3-percent O-Swing%, helped by a 43.0% mark in 2016. Not only is that way above league average, it’s ninth-most in Major League Baseball amongst players with at least 100 plate appearances.
  • Defensive metrics — which are admittedly shaky evaluators — aren’t kind to Schoop. Both DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) and UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) have been in the negative direction for the past two seasons.

Unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

His hard-hit ball percentage dropped 9.2 points after a “breakout” injury-shortened 2015 campaign, the ‘16 career-high 2.0 WAR needed 25 long balls to just hit that number, and walks are almost impossible to come by when Schoop is up to the plate.

Of course, there’s nothing here that proclaims Schoop must be a world-beating second baseman. He was in the middle of the pack among second basemen with WAR in 2016 and had enough pop to keep opposing pitchers hesitant when he approached the dish.

At the end of the day, the issue centers around the fact that Schoop lives on very thin ice.

If he doesn't continue to at-least stay consistent with his power, things go downhill very quickly in terms of overall value. Because his game -- on offense — is so one-dimensional, there isn’t much breathing room when he falls into a home run slump.

Unfortunately, 2016 proved that perfectly. With 25 home runs and 82 RBI, Schoop managed just a 97 wRC+.

In Sabermetric terms, that is extremely average. But when you value home runs as much as the Orioles do, it’s difficult to come to grips with the “fact” that Schoop hasn’t been an elite part of an MLB lineup in this analytics age.

Hardy’s case

I’ll admit that this was originally going to be an article shining the spotlight on Schoop, but I thought it was worth at least touching on Hardy’s value to round out the middle infield talk. His case is much simpler, but intriguing still.

Hardy isn’t going to fill the seats at Camden Yards so fans can watch him perform eye-popping feats at the dish. He, like Schoop, doesn’t get on base nearly enough and often falls into ruts on offense that can tend to drag on.

He’s hasn’t put up a wRC+ season above 100 since he’s been in Baltimore — and while that’d usually be disappointing, Hardy’s teams have learned to put offense on the back burner due to his outstanding work with the glove at short.

By the eye-test and every metric available, Hardy still owns the tools to be a well-above average player at SS. The skills might’ve fallen off just a touch, but it’s hardly been noticeable in his day-to-day game.

There’s no glaring pinpoint here that warrants worry, but I’m considering all angles and facts when attempting to piece together what the 2017 Orioles are going to look like.

Most noticeably, I’m concerned with Hardy’s age. At 34, he’s been playing pro ball since 2001 when he was drafted out of high-school. This will be his 13th season in the big leagues, and one has to wonder when that inevitable drop-off will come, both with range and arm ability.

There weren’t signs of a glaring regression in 2016, but it’s another factor to throw into the mix here.

None of us know how he’s holding up entering his 13th MLB season. Perhaps his game will be as athletic as ever. Just consider, paired with the totality of his numbers on offense, that any significant decline in his defensive game will considerably diminish his overall value.

Where things stand

As I finished up that last paragraph, I became aware of how brutally honest this entire column ultimately is. I promise, I didn’t intend to be a bearer of negativity here — it just... happened.

Glancing over the entire outlook of both guys, it’s easy to be a bit worried about how 2017 might play out.

According to FanGraphs’ “Depth Chart” projections, the Orioles are just one of two teams in Major League Baseball that has two “starting” middle infielders with projected OBPs of under .300.

On paper, that’s not ideal.

Maybe, hopefully, it’ll all work out and both players over-perform to contribute to a surprising 2017 O’s campaign.

Examining the lineup as a whole though, one has to wonder what the middle infield contributions are going to look like moving forward in Baltimore.