AJ Hinch has managed 1,081 games in his eight-year career. And he played in another 350 major league games.
He has a World Series ring for Houston’s championship in 2017 and came one win away from another in 2019. He managed some top-tier hitters, including Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and George Springer.
“In my years in the game, I haven’t seen somebody take so many swings postgame as Jonathan did during that stretch,” Hinch said. “Obviously, this stretch that he’s been in has been impressive, but the work had to be done.”
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Two stretches of games explain Schoop’s performance this season.
The first stretch started at the beginning of spring training, when the 29-year-old was unable to arrive in Lakeland, Florida, on schedule because of work visa issues and the ensuing COVID-19 intake screening process and mandatory quarantine.
He didn’t show up until March 11, nearly three weeks after the team’s first full-squad workout. Attempts to prepare for his ninth MLB season in Curacao, his home country, weren’t enough to get him up to speed offensively.
“I thought he was significantly behind,” Hinch said. “You just can’t replicate spring training without being in spring training. … You could see from the very beginning. We gave him a couple of workout days, and then we threw him right into games. That’s just not how players generally ramp into the speed of the game.
“Playing catch-up from the offensive standpoint, he never looked like he got on track in the spring. And the game speeds up as soon as advanced scouting and the season starts. He’s a veteran player. You expect him to play himself into shape and performance, but it took him a while to get on track.”
Schoop’s first 31 games in the 2021 season, from April 1 through May 8, were a disaster.
During that span, he hit .180 (20-for-111) with one double, two home runs, eight RBIs, six walks and 33 strikeouts. Considering Schoop has averaged 22 home runs per season from 2014-19, the early results were concerning.
The Tigers re-signed Schoop to a one-year, $4.5 million contract this winter because of his success in the shortened 2020 season. Last year, he hit .278 with eight home runs in 44 games. This time around, the production didn’t show up right away.
“You know you’ve done it before,” Schoop said. “But sometimes your mind is like, ‘I want to get out of (my slump) right now.’ That’s why you’ve got to talk to yourself: You’ve been through it; you know what to do.”
This balanced mindset sent Schoop to the batting cages after most games. He worked with hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh and assistant hitting coach Jose Cruz Jr. The goal wasn’t to change his mechanics in the batter’s box.
Schoop just wanted to feel comfortable again.
“I put a lot of work in with Coolbaugh,” Schoop said. “I gotta thank him.”
The second stretch
After Schoop’s 31st game this season, he locked in.
He is on a tear for the Tigers, hitting .343 (34-for-99) with six doubles, one triple, seven home runs, 18 RBIs, nine walks and 19 strikeouts in his past 25 games, from May 11 through June 6. His season-long batting average is up to .257 through 56 games.
“I feel better,” Schoop said. “I’m getting better at-bats, but I was working hard. I know how hard this game is, and that’s why I kept working. Things are going my way right now, so I have to maintain it.”
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In eight games from May 27 through June 4, Schoop launched six of his nine home runs with a .467 batting average.
“This is exactly why we wanted him back on our team,” Hinch said. “He was so behind at the beginning and couldn’t quite play catch up fast enough, but we’re seeing that the good version of him is very impactful. You’re seeing quality at-bat after quality at-bat (and) long at-bats that continue to give us production.”
Schoop found himself by swinging in the batting cages after games, doing so more often than any other player Hinch has managed. The recent success, however, does not mean Schoop is willing to get comfortable.
As a veteran and former All-Star, he won’t make that mistake.
“This game has a long season,” Schoop said. “It’s baseball, you know what I mean? It’s up and down. In this game, that’s why you fail more than you succeed. You got to learn from it, keep grinding and keep working.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.