02 April 2015

Did the Orioles Do Right by Jonathan Schoop?

Unlike the 2015 Chicago Cubs, who sent top prospect Kris Bryant to AAA for the beginning of the season even though he's apparently ready for the major leagues,  the 2014 Orioles kept Jonathan Schoop in the major leagues all season even though most observers -- myself included -- thought that he would benefit from more AAA time. These contrasting decisions inspired me to reflect on a team's responsibilities to its fans and to its players.

At the minimum, when a patron buys a ticket to a game all the club owes him or her is five innings (4 1/2 if the home team is ahead) of baseball. And the minimum a club owes its players are the requirements of the Basic Agreement and each player's individual contract. But, at least at a moral level, I believe a team owes a fan their best effort and to try to win. And, I also believe that a team owes a player the chance to develop and to become the best player he can.

Most of the time, these responsibilities do not conflict. But on occasion, one responsibility conflicts with the other. Jonathan Schoop in 2014 most likely was such a conflict. Although it's impossible to say for certain, it's likely that Schoop was the 2014 Orioles' best second baseman and it's also likely that Schoop would have become a better player had he started the season at AAA Norfolk. Which raises a question -- at a basic level, did the 2014 Orioles do the right thing with Jonathan Schoop? Did they appropriately balance their responsibilities to their fans and their responsibilities to Schoop?

This will be a very high-level look at the question. I'm not going to micro-analyze Schoop's contributions to the Orioles nor try to predict exactly how Schoop would have developed at Norfolk. This is an intuitive and emotional question, and the purpose of this article is to identify and raise the questions rather than to necessarily give an incontrovertible answer (although I do provide my own answer).

In answering the high-level question of did the Orioles do the right thing with Jonathan Schoop, there are two arguments which to me carry very little weight. The first is that the Orioles didn't do right by Schoop because (1) they won the division by 12 games, therefore (2) even if Schoop was their best second baseman, it wasn't necessary to play him to win, therefore (3) they could have let Schoop develop at AAA. The problem with that argument is that the Orioles couldn't have known that they would win the division by 12 games and thus that playing their best second baseman wasn't going to be necessary. The second is that (1) a team owes it to their fans to play their best team, therefore (2) the Orioles had to play Schoop or break faith with their fans. The problem here is that a team owes it to their fans to play their best team not only now, but also in their future. If the difference between Schoop and Ryan Flaherty or Jemile Weeks was relatively insignificant, and if not playing Schoop with the Orioles in 2014 would have made him a better player in 2015 and beyond, then the Orioles weren't breaking faith with their fans by sending him down.

No one could seriously argue that Jonathan Schoop played well on offense -- colloquially, "hit well" --  in 2014. Of all players with 400 or more plate appearances, Schoop had the sixth-worst OPS+ (67). Either Schoop would have benefited from more minor-league time, or he's not a good hitter. When you take into account that Schoop hadn't really hit well in his last two minor-league seasons and that he missed half of the 2013 season with an injury, you could conclude that it would have been better for Schoop's career had he been optioned to Norfolk for the start of the 2014 season. By doing so, Schoop might have developed his skills more and become a better player.

It's also possible that Schoop will continue to develop in the major leagues, and that Schoop's future career will be no worse than it would have been had he started 2014 in AAA. Note that here I'm not discussing whether the Orioles would have benefited from slowing Schoop's service time. The goal of a team is to win; the Orioles won in 2014; so it's not necessary to discuss 2020. I'm focusing on whether or not starting Schoop in the major leagues in 2014 will damage his career. To do so, I tried to identify players who were promoted to the major leagues before they may have been ready and who didn't hit well.

I used the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index to identify the seasons similar to Schoop's since 1990. Specifically, I looked for seasons by second basemen, shortstops, or third basemen 23 or younger with an OPS+ of 75 or less, in 400-500 plate appearances. I found seven other such seasons -- Benji Gil in 1995, Cristian Guzman in 1999, "Florida" Alex Gonzalez in 2000, Jack Wilson in 2001, Cesar Izturis in 2002, Jose Castillo in 2004, and Omar Infante in 2005. Some of these players are, unlike Schoop, slap hitters with little power. Others weren't in their rookie season; they had had some significant major league experience before their bad season. That left three players -- Gil, Wilson, and Castillo.

Benji Gil played six more seasons in the majors, none as a regular. He did hit well in two seasons with the Angels at age 28 and 29, but otherwise hit very poorly. Jack Wilson had a 10-year career and made the all-star team at age 26. He too had two good seasons with the bat, but for the most part hit poorly (although less poorly than Gil). Castillo played four more seasons and didn't hit well in any of them. Neither Castillo nor Wilson were considered as good a prospect as Schoop; Gil was considered to be a better prospect than Schoop although he probably wouldn't be today.

While these careers don't prove that Schoop won't (or can't) develop further as a hitter they also don't indicate that he will or can. I think it's probable that the Orioles did damage Schoop's career by having him start 2014 in Baltimore and that they didn't treat him well. On the other hand, they did do the best thing for their short-term interest and their fans by having him start 2014 in Baltimore. Taking all that into account, I think they made the right decision.


Manimal said...

So it is hard for someone to be a MLBer? I think if you compare to a similar group without respect to age you might find a similar answer.

Joe Reisel said...

In oversimplified terms, I was curious to see if players could develop their skills in the major leagues as well as in the minor leagues. To answer that question, age is less relevant, because older players presumably are closer to their full potential.

On the bigger picture, I realize that this article shouldn't be the last word on this subject.

Philip said...

Excellent article.
I think the big difference between the minor leagues in the major leagues is that The minor leagues are specifically designed to develop players skills, and coaches in the major leagues are more focused on refining skills that have already been mostly developed.
If that is true, Schoop needed more development.
He still needs more development, because he's still exhibiting largely the same problems. However, if he is the best available( although I do not think that he is, management sure seemed to think so) The team cannot be blamed for taking him as he was, instead of waiting until he was more developed.
Actually, this might well invite a little bit more scrutiny of the minor league coaches, who might not be as good at developing skills as we would like.

Anonymous said...

I have a hard time believing that Schoop was that much better than Flaherty to risk rushing his development. His defense is good yes, but the keystone is not back-up catcher. You have to hit, and it was pretty difficult watching Schoop's at-bats last year. He was not ready for the majors, and I don't think his overall value would have been much different from Flaherty's in a full season. Maybe this idea is archaeic, but I believe production results in promotion, not the other way around. I understand Schoop was young for every stop in the minors, but when is the last time he hit well? Delmarva? He was awful on offense last year and I do not expect him to get much better. If Hardy hadn't gotten hurt I would have sent him to Norfolk.

Kud said...

It is pretty bold to give rise a claim about a person being mishandled and his career possibly being forever impacted, provide absolutely no factual reasons to defend that allegation, and then casually decide it was the best decision. I think the writer was as surprised by the ending as the readers likely were.

Steven Holt said...

This was a very interesting article. I always struggle with team decisions like these but have never really narrowed it down to two options you identified.

I will say that I believe Schoop has amazing ability at second base. I can't remember if it was last year or the previous season but he did see some third base play for a short time. During that time and even by the end of last season, Schoop also seemed lke the worst defense player defined by number of errors and magnitude. I used to be so upset to see him start over Flaherty who is the much more superior fielder in my eyes.

I do think that having more playing time Schoop has made huge strides in hitting potential. If I remember Flaherty seemed to be struggling at the bat, Schoop came in and performed well. Flaherty did not see as much time until Hardy had health issues throughout the season.

I also love Flaherty because I believe he can play any infield position without any glaring weaknesses.

I think with Schoops power for homeruns and if can improve his fielding, he might be the right choice for second this year or a majority of the time. I would hate to see Flaherty go though. I think he should focus on being a good hitter off the bench and just be more consistent.

Anonymous said...

I know that comps with specific criteria can sometimes lead to sample problems, but I don't think 3 data points should be taken as much of an indication of anything one way or the other.

Joe Reisel said...

1. We will never get the definitive answer as to whether the Orioles did the right thing. We can't go back and re-play 2014 with the Orioles sending Schoop to Norfolk for seasoning. And if Schoop doesn't develop, we won't know if it's because he was rushed to the majors or because he just wasn't that good.

2. Implicit in the comments is that Schoop wasn't sufficiently better than the alternatives to justify playing him because the Orioles would have won anyway. I too cavalierly dismissed that argument. The Orioles' lead on July 31 was 1 1/2 games, they blew the race open in the next six weeks. But that was partly because Tampa Bay traded David Price and Boston gutted its pitching staff; the Orioles couldn't have known at the start of the season that those other teams would do that. That's a big factor in my conclusion.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, I'm skeptical being in the minor leagues is a prerequisite for developing your skills. People always worry that young players don't spend enough time in the minors nowadays (and have for years), but most great players come up young. Robin Yount and Alex Rodriguez were in the big leagues at 18. Did it hurt their development?

I'm not saying Schoop is comparable to those guys; just that intuitively I think most players will eventually become what they are, and while favorable conditions can help, the most important thing is how much they're playing, not where.

Someone must have done a large-scale study on this, somewhere. I'd be curious to know what they found.