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The Orioles need Jonathan Schoop and he’s never been better

The free-swinging Schoop has tamed his offensive approach, peeling back a product that seems to only improve by the day.

Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Down 5-4 in the top of the 8th inning yesterday afternoon, Orioles’ second baseman Jonathan Schoop was lured into a 1-2 count to start the inning.

Rays’ reliever Chase Whitley forced a swing and a miss from Schoop after a 1-1 changeup, putting the oft-swinging Schoop in a typically precarious situation. Whitley followed the 1-2 changeup with a slider down and away, a pitch that has historically induced a walk back to the dugout. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Passing on the slider down and away, Schoop was gifted a 2-2 changeup that stayed up just enough for him to line a 96 MPH line drive into the first row of Tropicana Field’s left field bleachers to tie the game. At a point in the year when the Orioles have been short in joy, baseball’s cutest bromance lent some reassurance that maybe, just maybe, the sky isn’t falling.

For Schoop, this kind of at-bat hasn’t been an aberration. His plate appearances this season have been much wiser, as he’s slowly yet steadily surveyed the strike zone with an indifference as never before.

Entering a much needed off-day, Schoop is currently slashing .295/.352/.545 with 15 home runs, a would-be career-best 133 wRC+, and is only 0.4 WAR from eclipsing his best ever mark of 2.0 set last season. And we still have 87 games to go.

Schoop has certainly earned the label as a free-swinger without fault. Since 2013, no qualified player has had a lower BB/K than Schoop, and prior to this year, his chase rate has never fallen under 40.5 percent. However, with 1,464 big league plate appearances on his resume at the start of this new season, Schoop has had a different mojo about him in his nearly 300 plate appearances this spring, and now early into the summer.

He looks like he’s grown up.

Our Alex Conway wrote about Schoop on May 10 in regards to the 25-year old making more contact, aiding his offensive surge. At the time, that was certainly true, but as the sample has increased, so has Schoop’s newfound willingness to be more selective.

Jonathan Schoop Plate Discipline

Plate Discipline O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% Zone%
Plate Discipline O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% Zone%
2013-16 42.50% 76.70% 58.20% 73.20% 46.40%
2017 34.90% 72.80% 50.80% 74.00% 42.00%

As we saw yesterday afternoon, Schoop has been much more adept in recognizing pitcher’s pitches in order to work the count towards seeing more hittable stuff. His chase rate has plummeted nearly eight percentage points to a more manageable 35 percent, even as pitchers have strayed out of the strike zone with more frequency.

Unlike his former self, Schoop has rationed his swings, loosening an established swing-at-all-costs mentality. Even though his contact rate has flattened to more familiar levels with more plate appearances, Schoop’s doing more with less hacks.

Pitchers haven’t strayed from their plan of attack towards Schoop either. He’s actually seeing more pitches down and on the outer-half of the plate. Even so, it hasn’t mattered. Schoop is pulling the baseball with more authority than he ever has.

With a pull-rate just a tick below 50 percent, Schoop’s evolution hasn’t included right field. As he’s used left and center field with even more pace, a player with underrated hands has maneuvered his game almost solely to his stronger side.

With fewer ground balls and more line drives and fly balls, Schoop has turned into the kind of hitter that’s been glimpsed in spurts. Even as you expect Schoop’s history to catch up to him, his previous norms have become accepted rarities. One of the more consistent Orioles, much of Schoop’s work, as he’s shown, has much to with an improved batter’s eye.

Falling under the scope of a learned eye doesn’t solely mean that he’s recognizing bad pitches, but off-speed and breaking pitches that are lurking into the zone as well.

For example, between 2013-16, one of Schoop’s biggest bugaboos was his ability to react to sliders and changeups. Schoop’s whiff-rate against the two pitches accumulated at a rate of 39 percent, with 20 percent of said pitches going airborne finding the real estate beyond the outfield fence.

The number of swings and misses in 2017 against the changeup and slider has hovered at 41 percent, but the home run rate of balls in the air has climbed to 22 percent. Schoop is still having his issues with the slider, as he’s been unable to make contact nearly 45 percent of the time, but that doesn’t mean he still isn’t waiting back.

Against changeups and curveballs, Schoop’s home run to fly ball/line drive ratio has upped from a combined career average of 17 percent to 42 percent in 2017, as he’s punished mistakes over the plate with plenty of slugging prowess. Schoop’s blended ISO versus changeups and curveballs entering 2017 averaged out at a .155 plateau, a signal of his struggles to line up the slow stuff. So far this season, Schoop’s ISO output with both the changeup and curveball has seen a mean of .443. In other words, Schoop isn’t getting fooled.

His favorite pitch, the fastball, has even seen it’s share of improvement too. Whiffing six percent less than the previous four years put together, Schoop has extended at-bats against the fastball with more foul balls, while his line drive rate has grown to 30 percent from a career benchmark of just under 25 percent. Put it all together, and the offensive pros are starting to heavily outweigh the cons.

As the Orioles are still floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean with land nowhere on the horizon, Schoop’s day in, day out production has been a pleasant compass somewhere in the right direction. Even as his best bro Manny Machado is seeing his BABIP numbers start to become more parallel with the hitter that he is, Schoop is currently on the short list of guys whom the Orioles have relied on, and it has much to do with him growing as a more well-rounded hitter.

Don’t expect the swings and misses to permanently subside, but if this is what a more patient Schoop looks like, sign me up.