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A new-and-improved Jonathan Schoop: Will it last?

One of the big revelations of the Orioles’ season so far has been the improvement of Jonathan Schoop.

While the offense has overall been a disappointment, ranking 17th in Major League Baseball in runs per game (4.5), 12th in home runs (48) and 14th in OPS+ with a perfectly average 100, Schoop has been a more than pleasant surprise.

(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)

Through Sunday’s action at Kansas City, Schoop is on track to match or surpass career highs in most every offensive category (not counting his five-game debut in 2013), while simultaneously cutting down on his strikeout rate (17.0 percent, compared to his 22.7 percent career mark), and nudging up his walk rate (3.7 percent, vs. 3.1 percent).

Schoop leads the Orioles in doubles and trails only Adam Jones in hits. And if you don’t count Trey Mancini and Seth Smith, both of whom have about 50 fewer plate appearances than Schoop, he also leads the team in batting average (.287), slugging percentage (.492) and OPS (.825). Even if you acknowledge the small sample size and understand that Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo are going to improve, this is a pleasant development.

But what is behind the improvement, and more importantly, can it last?

Asked about it in late April, manager Buck Showalter seemed to point to a simple reason: Maturity.

“Jon, for a while there was like one of those – you’ve seen the new fawns whose legs don’t quite support the body and they kind of wobble a little bit?” he said. “Not that he wobbled, but all of a sudden, everything caught up.”

That’s a great line, and now whenever I see Schoop I will think of a baby Bambi attempting to stand up. But kidding aside, this could mean a couple of things. It could mean that Schoop is stronger and thus is simply hitting the ball harder. But doesn’t seem to be the case on any kind of meaningful level, as his body does not look noticeably different and his average exit velocity has only gone up a tick this season – 87.9 mph, compared to 87.3 in 2016.

It’s more likely that Showalter was speaking in general terms about Schoop’s all-around maturity as a player – he’s less “wobbly,” so to speak. And there is evidence that Schoop has matured some, or at least is in the process of doing so.

Examining Schoop’s resume so far in what is still a young season, there is one aspect in which his game has changed drastically – swing rate. Schoop is taking a lot more pitches so far in 2017.

When looking at his swing rate, the first thing that jumps out at you is the rate at which he’s chasing outside the zone. Here are his O-swing% numbers:

Career: 41.5

2016: 43.1 (career high)

2017: 35.1

The difference is so large that it seems to signify that this is not a happy accident but an honest-to-goodness intended change in strategy.

Indeed, it turns out that the difference in swing rate is equally significant when it comes to pitches that are inside the zone:

Career: 75.5

2016: 79.9

2017: 67.3

So it’s not so much that Schoop is chasing less, it’s that he’s swinging less, period, a career-low 50.3 percent of the time. And as you can see here, it doesn’t matter what kind of pitch it is – breaking balls, offspeed pitches, hard stuff – he’s swinging less frequently at all of it.

So this has to be good right? If Schoop is being more selective, the assumption would be that he would see more favorable counts, get more pitches he can drive, get on base more and overall be a more effective player. And since he’s on pace for a career year, it would stand to reason that the selectivity is having a positive impact.

Except it isn’t. Not really.

I mean it’s certainly not a bad thing, and it’s not harming Schoop, but I would point to two things to argue that the impact of this strategy on his results have been pretty minimal.

One of which is exit velocity, which as mentioned above, is up only slightly. You would think that if Schoop is being more careful about swinging only at the pitches he is looking for, that it would affect his exit velocity, and it really isn’t.

The other stat that points to his strategy having a minimal effect is walk rate. As mentioned above, Schoop’s walk rate is 3.7 percent. And while that’s marginally better for him, it’s still pretty awful.

To put it into perspective, I’ll list the MLB players with a worse walk rate than Schoop (according to Fangraphs):

Yulieski Gurriel, Brandon Phillips, Aledmys Diaz, Jose Peraza, Leury Garcia, Alcides Escobar, Tim Anderson, Eddie Rosario and Carlos Beltran.

That’s it.

How is this possible? How can Schoop take so many more pitches and yet walk so infrequently?

The answer is that Schoop is doing everything in his power not to walk. It’s as if he’s afraid he will lose his roster spot or maybe that Mario Mendoza will put a curse on his family if he takes a free base.

To illustrate this, let’s look at Schoop’s swing rate in traditional hitter’s counts.

2-0 count

Schoop has seen a 2-0 count 19 times this season, and he has swung at the 2-0 pitch 10 times. That’s fine. The problem is that 11 of those 19 pitches have been outside the zone and Schoop has swung at five of them. So while a 2-0 count is a good time to look for something to knock out of the park, you should make sure it’s actually a good pitch. At 2-0, you’re in a position to be patient and do just that.

3-0 count

Schoop has seen a 3-0 count six times this season and has taken all of them. Good! Four of them have been outside the zone, so it has paid off.

3-1 count

Schoop has faced a 3-1 count 10 times this season and has swung at eight of them. Five of those pitches have been in the strike zone and he’s swung at all of them. The problem is that he’s swung at three of the five that would have been ball four.

So while it’s good that Schoop’s overall swing rate is a career-low 50.3 percent, any benefit of that is lessened by the fact that he is swinging at 50 percent of pitches outside the zone (8-for-16) when he has a hitter’s count (2-0 or 3-1). Those are situations in which he should be narrowing his zone, yet he is still being overly aggressive and it’s holding down his walk rate.

What does all of this mean?

It means that Showalter is partly right. Schoop is growing up as a hitter, but still has a ways to go. He’s still got some “wobble” in his game.

Schoop is naturally a free swinger. He wants to hit, not walk. That’s always been pretty clear. But it’s also clear that he’s trying to change his game. He’s trying to be more selective. He’s trying to make himself a more dangerous, all-around threat at the plate.

So far the results have been mixed. He hasn’t been “more selective” so much as he’s been “willfully not swinging as much.” There’s a huge difference.

But it’s also a positive step in the right direction. First, you swing less frequently and see more pitches. Next, you learn how to actually take advantage of it.

Maybe Schoop will take that second step and maybe he won’t. He might always be a free-swinger who is allergic to walks. But you have to remember that this is a guy who doesn’t even turn 26 until October.

He’ll never be Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, but he could certainly get better, and the fact that he is clearly trying to get better is a wonderful sign.

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Bob Harkins

Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!

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