Detroit Tigers’ Jonathan Schoop embraces ‘different’ pressure, talks defense in 2022

Detroit Free Press

Jonathan Schoop isn’t afraid of the pressure.

Quietly confident might be the best way to describe the Detroit Tigers‘ infielder, who willingly sacrificed his role as a second baseman to find a home last winter. He re-signed with the Tigers in February, inking a one-year, $4.5 million contract. Putting pen to paper, the 29-year-old knew he was opting for defensive versatility and a cloudy future.

At the same time, Schoop understood the Tigers would lean on him as a leader in his second spin with the organization. Indeed, the nine-year MLB veteran helped changed the culture. His production scored him a bonus.

He signed a two-year contract extension in early August, keeping him in Detroit through the 2023 season. The deal — negotiated by Schoop’s agent, Scott Boras — is for $15 million with an opt-out after 2022.

That’s why Schoop believes his work is only at its preface.

“People believe in me,” Schoop said Sept. 7 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. “Just because they gave me two years doesn’t mean I can sit back and relax. I think now the hard work starts because people believe in me. I got to go out there and perform and prove what I do best: play baseball. It’s more pressure because when they pay you. You got to go out there and perform, play hard and do things to help the team win.”

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Schoop has exactly 600 plate appearances over 139 games in 2021 — 381 as a first baseman, which he had never played in the majors before this season. He is hitting .281 with 27 doubles, 20 home runs, 77 RBIs, 31 walks and 121 strikeouts, giving him a .320 on-base percentage and .441 slugging percentage.

He leads MLB with 50 multi-hit games.

On Friday, Schoop flashed a reminder of his value. The Tigers trailed by one run against the Tampa Bay Rays in the bottom of the seventh inning at Comerica Park. With the bases loaded, Rays manager Kevin Cash brought in reliever Andrew Kittredge to preserve the one-run lead.

But Schoop drilled Kittredge’s fourth-pitch slider over the left-field wall for a grand slam. The Tigers took a 7-4 lead, which led to 10-4 victory. (Benefiting from another comeback win in Sunday’s series finale, the Tigers took two of three against the American League-best Rays.)

“He finds a way to scratch and claw his way back to contributing at such a high level,” manager AJ Hinch said Saturday. “He’s one swing away. We saw that last night.”

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Once again, Schoop’s performance confirmed the Tigers made the right decision when they came to an agreement on a two-year extension. Meanwhile, the Tigers — spearheaded by Hinch and general manager Al Avila — expect his contributions to help the team reach the postseason in 2022, something the franchise hasn’t done since 2014. He doesn’t have to do it alone, but his consistency is critical.

“This is a big step towards bringing winning baseball back for our fans,” Avila said in August, “and we know Jonathan will be a big part of that.”

So yeah, there’s a little bit of pressure.

But it’s nothing Schoop isn’t used to.

“I like the pressure,” Schoop said. “I’ve been under a lot of pressure, man. It’s no more pressure than playing year-by-year. I’ve done it three years in a row. Year-by-year is more pressure because after the year, you don’t know where you’re going to go. You don’t know if a team is going to believe in you and give you a contract to sign. You can play good but no team wants you. That’s pressure.

“Now it’s go out there, enjoy the game and play hard to help your team win.”

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In July 2018, Schoop was shipped from the Baltimore Orioles — the team he broke into MLB with at age 21 — to the Milwaukee Brewers at the trade deadline. The ensuing offseason, he picked up a one-year deal from the Minnesota Twins. He then grabbed a one-year contract from the Tigers for 2020.

Once again, Schoop went back to the open market. He signed another one-year deal with the Tigers. (This time, he agreed to return to Detroit for $4.5 million, less than the $6.1 million he made in 2020 and the $7.5 million from the Twins in 2019.)

Schoop admits the pressure in 2021 is “way different.” It’s less about getting a paycheck and more about producing for the team that finally decided to pay him. Because with 18 games remaining, he doesn’t have to worry about where he is going to play next season.

Detroit is home.

And he is expected to help the Tigers win.

“You want to perform for the people that believe in you,” Schoop said. “You hold yourself accountable for them, for the team. That’s why they got you, to perform for them, to help the young guys and win. It’s a different pressure. Regardless of what happens, try to win.”

Defense in ’22

When Schoop signed with the Tigers in February, he volunteered to become a versatile defender. From the get-go, Hinch planned to use the second baseman — with some prior experience at shortstop and third base — as his primary first baseman.

Thus far, Schoop has impressed.

“It’s been important for us to have a place for him to play while we looked at other guys (Willi Castro, Isaac Paredes),” Hinch said. “He was more than capable at second base. He’s continued to demonstrate that. For him to go over to first base, learn a new position, get pretty good at it and do it with a smile on his face has been very beneficial for us.”

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In a recent segment on MLB Network Radio, Hinch foreshadowed the Tigers’ defensive alignment in 2022. He referred to Spencer Torkelson as a first baseman (not the everyday third baseman the Tigers once predicted). Even if Torkelson — the 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick — doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, it shouldn’t be long before his arrival.

“Jonathan is going to fill in depending on what our needs are,” Hinch said on MLB Network Radio. “There’s no secret that the first baseman of the future is Spencer Torkelson. … But I don’t know when his arrival is going to be. The organization will be very smart about his development. When he arrives, that will create a little more opportunity for (Schoop at) second, maybe third.”

Torkelson, 22, is currently playing for Triple-A Toledo. He is hitting .265 with 26 home runs, 78 RBIs, 68 walks and 104 strikeouts over 106 games between High-A West Michigan (31 games), Double-A Erie (50 games) and Toledo (25 games) in his first professional season.

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That means Schoop must move to second base, right?

“We signed him back to play somewhere,” Hinch said. “We don’t know where it’s going to be yet, depending on the makeup of our club. But I think his work at first base has been aggressively getting better and better as the season has gone on. I think he’s completely comfortable now.”

Considering Torkelson’s status as a first baseman, it makes sense for Schoop and his elite arm strength to shift back to second base whenever the top prospect shows up for his MLB debut. The Tigers seemingly have three of their four infielders locked in for next year: Torkelson at first base, Schoop at second base and Jeimer Candelario at third base.

But Schoop doesn’t care, as long as he is winning.

“I’m here for the team. Whatever they need, I’m here,” Schoop said. “If they ask me to play right field next year, I’m ready for it. I just got to practice. If they ask me to catch, whatever. Seriously, I just want to be in the lineup. I like to play baseball and don’t like to sit on the bench. I like to play and help my team. If they have to move me back to second, I’m ready for it. If they ask me to play first, I’m ready for it. Right field, whatever you want. That’s a position I’ve never played before, so you got to give me time, and I’m going to work hard to get it.

“Whatever is best for the team to win. It’s all about winning. I’m a winning player. Whatever it is to help us win, I’m ready to sit down and talk about it and do it.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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