The easy narrative would be that Jonathan Schoop was destined to return to Detroit. While the Tigers loved his production and leadership, Schoop enjoyed his role in helping young players. But their reunion on a one-year, $4.5 million contract comes with both sides looking different than last season.
The Tigers, of course, have changed, with new manager A.J. Hinch and new hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, the latter of whom worked with Schoop for most of his tenure in Baltimore.
Hinch has made no secret that he loves positional versatility. And that’s where Schoop is willing to change, too.
“I just want to prove that I can play short, I can play third, I can play all over,” Schoop said during a Monday video conference with reporters. “Whatever you need me [to do], I can go in there and do it, and do it really good. If I play only second base, it's good, but I know I can play everywhere. I know I can play short, I know I can play third base, so I just want to show what I can do.”
Schoop played all those positions at different points on his way through the Orioles' farm system after signing as a teenager out of Curacao as a shortstop. He played second and short extensively for most his way up the Minors, but moved almost exclusively to second in Baltimore, where Manny Machado had the shortstop position.
Schoop and Hinch talked about versatility before Schoop re-signed. Schoop said they did not talk about first base, where the Tigers still have a glaring opening as Spring Training nears and C.J. Cron remains a free agent following left knee surgery in August, but Schoop said he’s open to first, too.
“In Spring Training, we’ll talk more,” Schoop said. “But like I say, I'm ready to play whatever they need me. If they need me at first, I'm ready. If they need me at third, I'm ready. Short, I'm ready. Left field, right field, I'm ready everywhere. Maybe they need me only at second base, you never know, but I'm ready.”
The other potential change is at the plate, where Schoop was the focal point of the Tigers' lineup for stretches before a right wrist injury ended his season in mid-September. He has generally been known for power at the expense of strikeouts over the past few years, but he wants to improve on the latter.
“I want to come back and get more good at-bats and stay in the zone, swing at more strikes and don’t chase too much,” he said.
That might not be a coincidence. While Schoop posted a career-high 32 home runs with the Orioles under Coolbaugh’s tutelage in 2017, he also had a career-low 21 percent strikeout rate according to Statcast. The latter rose in each of the next two seasons, up until 25.0 percent with the Twins in '19, before dropping to 22.0 percent last year. Schoop's 38.2 percent chase rate was still 10 points above the Major League average, tempered by a slight improvement in his contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone.
“I have to just come up there with a better plan,” Schoop said, “go up there and let them throw strikes. If they’re not strikes, just don’t swing at it. Try to see the ball early and try to see the ball in the zone and put a good swing on it. I have to go up there with a plan.”
Coolbaugh served as Orioles hitting coach from 2015-18, including Schoop’s breakthrough 2017 campaign and drop in '18. Schoop’s .278 batting average, .324 on-base percentage, .475 slugging percentage, .799 OPS and 115 OPS+ last year were all his best numbers since '17.
“He’s a really good hitting coach,” Schoop said of Coolbaugh, “and I know I’m going to do better because he knows me. I have a really good relationship with him. He’s a coach, but we became really good friends, too, because [if] I do something wrong, he’ll jump on me. He would tell me, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go do this right.’”
That said, there’s an obvious comfort level with Schoop in Detroit, and Schoop was eager for stability. The Tigers last year marked his fourth team in three seasons. Now, they’re the first team he’s coming back to since his pre-free-agency days in Baltimore.
“Honestly, I feel at home in Detroit,” Schoop said. “I feel good with the guys, the young guys around. I built a really good relationship with them, and I feel like we have a really good group of guys that can work together and win a lot of ballgames. We just have to put it together, and I believe in them.”