Produce or platoon: Everyday at-bats not a guarantee for Tigers’ Jonathan Schoop

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Tigers manager AJ Hinch dropped something in the middle of a longer dissertation on Jonathan Schoop the other day that initially slipped through the cracks.

He was talking about the club’s emphasis on getting Schoop, who has left camp to play for Team Netherlands, back to swinging at pitches in the strike zone. Earlier in camp, Hinch mentioned that Schoop had left nearly 40 walks on the table by chasing three-ball pitches that were out of the strike zone.

In a season where he posted career offensive lows across the board, he posted a 37% chase rate and a 3.7% walk rate. Cause and effect.

“We have to get him in the strike zone for him to be a more productive player and for him to get opportunities against right-handed pitching, specifically,” Hinch said.

The first part of that sentence was benign, an obvious statement of fact. The second part was eye-opening. Was he saying that, if he doesn’t get himself back in the strike zone, Schoop could possibly be platooned this season, hitting mostly against left-handed pitching?

“I don’t like that word,” Hinch said, meaning platoon. “We’re going to move guys around a little bit and try to put our best guys out there that we can against right-handers, against left-handers, against specific right-handers and specific left-handers. And Jonathan has to get into the strike zone.

“That’s all I mean by that. It might be at second base. It might be at third base. We’ll see how it plays itself out.”

As if Schoop needed any more motivation coming off last year and, at age 31, entering a contract year.

“It’s more of a challenge for him to control the strike zone a little bit to get the everyday at-bats that he’s had in his career and that he wants,” Hinch said. “He knows this.”

Schoop isn’t the only player in this produce-or-platoon boat. Hinch is looking to find or create the most optimal configurations in the infield. And, with the Tigers coming off one of the most dreadful offensive seasons in their proud history, offensive criteria will weigh heavier than defensive criteria in the selection process.

“To be as blunt as I can, we’re trying to make our team versatile enough to put the best offense on the field,” Hinch said. “The defense needs to be good. We can’t just give away defense with certain configurations. But, we are leaving all options open so we can produce a better offense.”

With shortstop (Javier Baez) and first base (Spencer Torkelson) virtually set, the lineup variations are coming at second base and third base. And right now, Hinch is essentially working with left-handed hitter Nick Maton and switch-hitter Cesar Hernandez as matchup options against right-handers and Schoop, Tyler Nevin, Andy Ibanez, Ryan Kreidler and Jermaine Palacios as right-handed options who have hit well against left-handed pitching.

Only four players out of that group will make the Opening Day roster. And the selection process goes way deeper than righty-lefty splits.

“The ball in play on defense. When can we exploit the speed we have? How much defense do we want to factor in?” Hinch said, ticking off some factors off the top of his head. “Where guys are physically. Creating as tough a lineup for the other manager to navigate with his bullpen use.

“There is a lot more that goes into a lineup than just drawing it up on a gut feel.”

There is a multitude of analytical factors, too, like matching up hitters’ swing planes to pitchers’ pitch shapes; hot zones vs. cold zones; pitcher-hitter history — it can be a bottomless rabbit hole.

“If you want to give me a lineup I can roll out every day, I would not argue,” Hinch said, laughing.

But, that’s not where the Tigers are right now.

“If Schoop gets hot, if (Eric) Haase gets hot, it doesn’t matter who they face. Their power is real when they stay in the zone,” Hinch said. “But the way we are going to be is not going to be plug and play every day with the same lineup – the way that our mind often wants it to be.”

Twitter: @cmccosky

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