19 April 2016

Why Schoop Needs More Patience

Jonathan Schoop is known for both his impressive power, especially for a second baseman, and for his propensity to strikeout.  He’s expected to be a big part of the Orioles’ offense, and continuing his upward climb will significantly enhance the Orioles’ prospects for success. So, I was intrigued to see an article from Jon Meoli, discussing how Schoop feels about his plate discipline.

To a large extent, there were few surprises. Schoop said that he felt like he had a great 2015 and that gave him confidence in himself. It would be extremely odd if Schoop said that a strong 2015 didn’t give him confidence in himself. But then Meoli also quoted the following:
"I feel like I'm selecting a lot better," Schoop said. "I'm better than two years ago. I'm better than last year. I'm swinging at more strikes, and eventually, they have to come throw a strike. Three years ago, I was helping the pitcher a lot. I kind of eliminated that a little bit, but I've still got a long way to get better at it."
Jon, very seldom do they … get him out a whole lot in the strike zone," manager Buck Showalter said. "It's just trying to take him off the sweet spot of the bat with some movement, and some deception, and some balance issues.
"I've loved the way they've concentrated on it. Now, we go to the next level, if you can carry it over into the season. It would be a big asset for us if we could get better at it."
This is a bit of good reporting that gives insight into Schoop’s approach and fits pretty well with the data. Mike Petriello noted that Schoop led the majors last year at swinging at strikes in the strike zone. He also was one of the most likely to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone. In short, Schoop’s strategy is to just swing at the ball and hope to make contact.

This hasn’t worked particularly well for him in past seasons. He had a walk rate of just 2.8% and a strikeout rate of 24.6% last year. My metric that measures production on walks and strikeouts by both ratio and quantity, ranked Schoops’ 2015 walk/strikeout performance 31st out of 338 batters. A 24.6% strikeout rate is high and extremely damaging when paired with an extremely low walk rate. He may think that he’s selecting better, and Buck may argue that pitchers rarely get him out in the strike zone, but that doesn’t make it so. The only saving grace is that he was able to pound the ball last year, but you've got to wonder just what he could become.

This might suggest that a less aggressive approach may help solve this problem. Since he has a low rate of contact, a more passive approach would allow him to swing at pitches he’s most likely to put into play and would presumably improve his walk rate while having minimal impact on his strikeout rate.

This can be successful for some players. I suggested that Chris Davis should try to do this last month. This also would work well for a player like Adam Jones. From 2013-2015, Adam Jones shows significant improvement in the months when he swings less frequently compared to when he swings more frequently. As the chart shows, Adam Jones swung at an average of 61.64% of all pitches in months where he swung most frequently, but only 55.31% in months where he swung less frequently. Despite this, his In Play% dropped from 21.82% to 21.51%. The lesson is simple, when Adam swings less frequently, he’s more likely to swing at pitches that he can hit. As a result, his wOBA is .368 with a 3.65% walk rate and an 18.85% strikeout rate in the months when he swung less frequently and only a .325 wOBA with a 2.76% walk rate and a 20.34% strikeout rate in the months where he swung more frequently.

This probably means that Adam Jones is able to be more selective when selecting pitches to swing at but decides not to do so. I wouldn’t be surprised if Adam Jones subscribed to a philosophy that significantly undervalued walks and overvalued base hits.

The problem is that taking a less aggressive approach doesn’t always work. For example, look at Ben Revere. Ben Revere is known for being a player that has an elite contact tool. The chart below shows how he performed in the eight months in 2013 to 2015 when he swung least frequently and in the eight months during that period where he swung most frequently.

Sure enough, Revere improved his wOBA not in play when he swung less frequently. His BB% went from 3.18% to 4.41% but his K% went from 9.21% to 9.73%. His called Ball% increased by 3.6% while his called strike rate increased by only .18% and his In Play% decreased by only .86%. He definitely showed better plate discipline. But his overall wOBA remained the same because he put fewer pitches into play and he has his best results when putting pitches into play.

It turns out that Schoop also falls in this category.  When looking at the months he swung less frequently compared to the months he swung more frequently in 2014 and 2015, when he swung less frequently, his called strike rate increased more than his called ball rate. His rate of putting the ball into play was roughly the same in each set of months. In short, this data suggests that he should swing often because he is terrible at determining whether pitches are going to balls or strikes.

This becomes apparent when looking at what he did in the second half of 2015. In July, he swung 57% of the time and in August/September he swung 63%. He swung at over 80% of pitches in the strike zone over that period of time and nearly 40% pitches that were clearly balls. It’s like he’s not even trying to figure out whether pitches are in the strike zone and is just trying to swing at them.

Admittedly, it probably let him focus on just hitting the stuffing out of the ball if he knows he’s going to swing at most pitches close to the strike zone. But it suggests that pitch recognition is a big problem for him. It appears that it’s hard for him to tell whether a pitch is going to be a ball or a strike. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he put an average of 35% of balls into play when he swings for his entire career and only 32.3% from July to October of 2015. It’s hard to hit the ball when you don’t know where it will go.

At first glance, he seems to have improved this season. After all, he has an 5% BB rate, a 17% K rate, but most importantly a .932 OPS and a 164 wRC+. He only has a decent OBP, but he’s crushing the ball. If he continues to hit doubles at his current pace and ends up hitting 60 for the season, people aren’t going to complain. Here's his numbers.

His plate discipline is about where it's been prior to this season. Fewer fouled balls and more pitches into play has caused him to reduce his strikeout percentage. But the main reason why he's doing so well is because he's just crushing the ball. He has a 1.094 OPS and a .472 wOBA when putting the ball into play. It doesn't even matter whether he puts strikes or balls into play. He has a .434 wOBA against pitches put into play that are in the strike zone and a .588 wOBA against pitches put into play that aren't in the strike zone.

There are two ways to deal with this situation. The first is to simply say that he's doing well enough and there's no reason to change his approach. After all, if he ends the season with a .932 OPS, then who cares how he does it? The only thing I'll note is that he currently only ranks 37th out of 195 qualified players in wOBA in pitches put into play and he's behind players such as Delino DeShields, Wilson Ramos, Dexter Fowler, Tyler White and Jeremy Hazelbaker. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's early and there have been some fluky performances. I'll take the under on Fowler having a .510 OBP as he does currently.

The second way is to presume that he's been hot lately and that this likely isn't sustainable. If so, his poor plate discipline is going to cost him when he stops having such excellent results when putting pitches into play. Even if it is sustainable, teams are going to stop throwing him strikes because he'll swing at pitches outside of the zone and he'll turn into such a dangerous hitter. It's worth noting that one of the reasons why Harper has such good results is because he's become more selective and therefore has incredibly high walk and strike out rates. If better plate discipline had good results for Harper, it seems reasonable that it would have good results for Schoop also. After all, it's a good thing if Harper puts the ball into play, right?

The ideal way to address this situation is probably spending hour after hour studying film and going through stimulated at bats to work on practicing pitch recognition and learning where pitches will actually go. Presumably, figuring that out will allow Schoop to use his physical abilities to the utmost.  The answer the Orioles’ went with is to swing and pray.

Fortunately for the fans, it’s likely that Schoop will be successful either way. He’s pretty good at hammering pitches and plays a premium defensive position.  But with slight improvement in this regard, he could have a similar career to Dan Uggla. With significant improvement, he could turn into a younger version of Robinson Cano. Both of these second basemen had 30 home run power in their primes and Schoop potentially has even more power. The difference is that these batters also have better plate discipline. Uggla largely had a walk rate of about 12-13% and a strikeout rate of 22-23% per year, while Cano had a walk rate of about 8% and a strikeout rate of about 12% per year. Schoop is far worse in this regard than both of these players.

The reason why is simple. Uggla struggled to put balls into play and did so at a similar rate as Schoop. But he was excellent at only swinging at pitches that he could hit and thereby getting a lot of balls. Likewise, Cano also has an excellent eye and is considerably better at making contact than Schoop. They had better plate discipline. Schoop had significant success last year when making contact regardless of where pitches were thrown, but doesn’t have as good of an eye as those players.

Schoop is likely going to be a good player at least until his early 30s. His power and hit tool will allow him to be at least average offensively. But how his plate discipline develops will ultimately determine his ceiling. He needs to decide whether he wants to be decent or the next Robinson Cano. If the Orioles can develop him properly, he could be special.

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