San Diego ― Jonathan Schoop was one of the best defenders in baseball last season. He led both leagues in outs and runs above average and was a Gold Glove finalist.
And yet, discussions persist about the possibility of him moving off his second base position in 2023.
Manager AJ Hinch on Tuesday was addressing a question about adjusting to a new rule change that will effectively ban defensive shifts. Teams next season will have to deploy two infielders on each side of second base and all four have to set up on the dirt of the infield.
“I think it’s going to enhance our need to get our infielders to have the versatility and the agility that’s needed to cover the whole position from the dirt,” he said. “I think second basemen around the league got used to playing from a huge distance in the back. Especially Schoop, having his arm make up for any distance he wanted to play in the back. It is really going to be different.”
The majority of Schoop’s outs above average were gained with his elite throwing arm, making plays both from the pivot at second base and from shallow right field.
“No one will go up and try to hit hard ground balls to the right side,” Hinch said. “They’ll get rewarded for some of the mistakes. But to defend that, the agility part of the right side of the infield ― we’ll be reminded that that’s an important skill set for our infielders.”
That agility, especially at age 31, is not Schoop’s best attribute. According to Baseball Reference, he was a minus-2 outs above average based on his range last season.
The Tigers have vacancies at third base and first base (with Spencer Torkelson needing to win his spot in spring training). Depending on what deals they make this offseason, it is conceivable that Schoop could be moved to one of the corners.
“I think he can play a couple different positions,” Hinch said. “I think first base will still be an option for him. I think third base is going to be an option for him. Depends on how the roster is built and what other guys we have available to us.
“But I know you guys heard this from me the last couple of years, the importance of versatility…I’m very much interested in a team that I get as many options as I can, to put together a lineup and put together a defensive alignment.”
Schoop, though, is not going to go to the corner without a fight.
“I think Jonathan will be fine,” Hinch said. “The turn’s going to be the same. The mobility around second base is going to be something that we hammer home with him. He’s sending me videos every day or every other day about all the agility drills he’s doing back home.
“He’s making a statement.”
Walk the Line
Hinch walked lightly around the topic of lefty reliever Gregory Soto. The two-time All-Star saved 30 games last season but also absorbed 11 losses.
With free agent relievers getting signed to all-time rich contracts so far this offseason, and not just closers, the trade market for late-inning lefties under team control who can throw it close to 100 mph with an evil slider is bound to be robust.
So Hinch, asked if there would be an open competition for the closer role in 2023, chose his words carefully.
“Listen, I don’t know,” he said. “I guess in some ways I’m saying yes, but I’m not really fixated on that. I think we need to look long and hard at how our pen is going to be put together. Obviously, as it stands today, a lot of the same names. And whether they remain in a lot of the same roles, I guess that will be determined.”
Hinch, regardless if he was protecting or enhancing trade value, considers Soto a rare and valuable talent. When he’s able to consistently command the strike zone.
“I love Gregory Soto,” Hinch said. “The impact that he has on the game; the fear that’s instilled when he comes in. There could be an extra walk in there. There could be a little bit of a walk-a-fine-line. But there are just not a lot of guys like him walking around the league left-handed throwing 100 with the pitch metrics that he has.
“We’ve got to continue to get him inside the strike zone. The more he does that, the more he earns the back end of the game. So it’s going to be tied to strike-throwing. We’re always going to nudge him a little bit, maybe not declare always what we’re going to do with him until we get him in the strike zone more often.”
Show of Faith
The event scheduled for November ended up being still-born, a victim of some wonky contractual issues, but the fact that Major League Baseball reached out and tabbed Hinch to manage a team of big-leaguers in what would have been the first games played in Korea since 1922 was significant.
Just two years prior, Major League Baseball suspended Hinch for a full season for his role in the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. To ask him, after just two seasons back on the job, to lead a goodwill mission to Korea on behalf of the league ― well, penance paid.
“That would have been incredible,” Hinch said. “An experience for everybody. Obviously get to meet a lot of players around the league. Get to experience something I’ve never done before, represent the league and the Tigers.
“And also there were a couple of staff members that were going to go that were on previous staffs of mine, which would have been great to reconnect with them. But obviously it’s a huge honor. I have great respect for the commissioner’s office for reaching out.”
The Korea Series, as it was billed, would have featured games in Buson and Seoul.
“I don’t know if I’d use the word ‘validation.’ As much as I just appreciate that they give me the chance to do more good rather than have that (scandal) define my entire career,” Hinch said. “I do appreciate that. It’s something I’ll never forget, obviously ― the lessons I learned from it.
“But I appreciate MLB reaching out.”