Tigers player preview: Jonathan Schoop badly needs a rebound

Bless You Boys

One player who has flown under the radar this spring is one who really needs to start making some noise. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop is coming off a very rough year offensively and headed for free agency. Hopes for a good season and another solid payday are at stake for the player. For the team, there’s no long term commitment to worry about should he prove unable to turn things around. They won’t be impatient, but the leash can’t be very long at this point.

Now 31 years old and a free swinger whose hand-eye coordination and home run power compensated for his poor plate discipline, there’s a real chance that Schoop is just in permanent decline. Players with his hitting profile often fall off much more rapidly than those with a more disciplined approach.

However, it’s worth remembering that Schoop had a pretty good year in 2021. One bad season doesn’t necessarily mean the end. The Tigers would just like some signs that he’s turning it around soon, as they can’t go another year letting him struggle anywhere near the degree he did last season. His $7.5 million for 2023 is a sunk cost at this point, and the Tigers do have young right-handed hitting infielders who could use the playing time.

Schoop has a great reputation as a teammate. He was also one of the most valuable defensive players in baseball last season. There are attributes in play beyond his bat, but they won’t keep him afloat is he can’t at least hold his own and put up average production at the plate.

Jonathan Schoop 2020-2022

Season PA wRC+ K% BB% ISO fWAR
Season PA wRC+ K% BB% ISO fWAR
2020 177 117 22.0 4.5 0.198 1.5
2021 674 107 19.7 5.5 0.157 2.1
2022 510 57 21.0 3.7 0.121 1.5

Schoop has always had serious raw power and that’s been his saving grace as a hitter. He doesn’t get on base particularly well, and he’s decidedly a free swinger. On the other hand, he also doesn’t strike out very much for a guy who can hit 25-30 home runs and play middle infield for you. The low walk rates reflect a lack of discipline that leads to a wildly varying degree of contact and that makes him hard to predict. Schoop is capable of crushing the ball at 115 mph or better, but he also makes a lot of weak contact and routine outs.

There aren’t really any signs of a change in approach or plate discipline last year. Schoop’s swinging strike rate was normal and he didn’t chase out of the strike zone any more than usual. He also didn’t hit an unusual number of ground balls, which can often be the culprit when a power hitter stops doing damage without striking out more.

If there’s one change that stands out, it’s that Schoop was downright terrible against fastballs last year, particularly of the fourseam variety. He’s tended to have a mix of good and bad seasons against the heat over his career, but 2022 was his worst season in this regard. Particularly pitchers capable of a strong north-south approach with fourseam fastballs and breaking balls with good depth just ate him up.

In 2021, Schoop posted a .368 wOBA against fastballs. In 2022, that mark collapsed to .228 and his expected wOBA (xwOBA) was still only .272 so it wasn’t really a matter of bad luck. Overall he posted a .245 wOBA, with an xwOBA of .268 against all pitches in 2022. There’s not a lot to be optimistic about there. League average was .310, so a real turnaround is required just to get back to average production.

If this is a sign that Schoop is just irreversibly losing batspeed then nothing is going to stop the free fall in his numbers. Hopefully the fact that he crushed fastballs at a great clip in 2021 is a sign that the batspeed hasn’t collapsed. One year doesn’t necessarily mean it has, and Schoop’s late arrival after the lockout last season could have left him behind the curve all year. Teams have also gotten much more focused on specifically training for batspeed in recent years, including the Tigers, so possibly that emphasis could help him regain a moment of decision-making time on pitches and help him start driving fastballs again. On the other hand, Schoop never turned it around at any point last season. He was still struggling late in the season.

Schoop put up a notably great defensive season in 2022, but his defense without the shift is highly unlikely to float the profile much on its own. He recorded 27 outs above average according to Statcast, but he hadn’t managed more than 5 OOA since 2017. Expecting anything like a repeat of his 2022 defensive marks, particularly as range and reflexes again become more important without full shifts, just isn’t reasonable.

Outlook

Jonathan Schoop is generally regarded as a very good teammate. While his defensive numbers will regress, he should remain a plus defender for a few more years as his hands, footwork, and throwing accuracy are all still very good. But defense and team leadership aren’t going to keep him in the major leagues much longer if the collapse against fastballs in 2022 really is a sign that his batspeed is failing him. He doesn’t have the plate discipline to survive without it.

Spring camp didn’t provide any reassurance. Schoop struggled in the WBC and didn’t do much in limited Grapefruit League play either. That doesn’t mean a lot either, but it would certainly be nice to see a glimmer of hope that things will turn around.

The Tigers could really use Schoop’s power and defense, but they can’t wait around very long. Let’s just hope there’s enough left in the tank for one more solid season. If he continues to be badly beat by velocity over the first 6-8 weeks, that’s probably a wrap for him. The Tigers will be patient for a while, but Schoop has weeks, not months, to at least show signs he’s turning it around. If not, it’s time to give that playing time to younger players and move on.

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