It’s rare that a general manager admits a mistake. It’s even more rare when one does it using the plain language Brewers GM David Stearns did when commenting on the non-tender of Jonathan Schoop.
It’s a quote that got a lot of attention and even some admiration on Friday night:
David Stearns looking at the Schoop trade in hindsight: "Look, it was a bad deal, and that's on me. We made a trade for a player we thought was going to be here for a year and a half, and I was wrong."— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) November 30, 2018
The addition of Schoop was polarizing from the day it was made. While the promise of what Schoop could’ve brought to the Brewers’ offense was high — a much-needed power jolt, and someone who could provide any offense at both second base and shortstop — so was the cost.
Luis Ortiz was struggling to get over the hump in the Brewers’ system at Double-A, but was still a Top-5 prospect in the system with mid-rotation promise. Jean Carmona was an 18-year-old with plenty to dream on. Jonathan Villar had shown he was capable of being a productive second baseman, although he’s yet to play well when his team is supposed to be good.
Schoop admitted to trying to do too much in the days immediately following the trade. His best friend, Manny Machado, was traded a couple weeks earlier and got off to a hot start for a contending team. Schoop wanted to show he could do the same, and that he was worth the vote of confidence Stearns gave him.
Instead, he went 0-for-12 with 8 strikeouts in his first three games as a Brewer — two of which came against Machado and the Dodgers. Acquired for his power, Schoop wouldn’t hit a home run until his 18th game as a Brewer.
Once that happened, though, it looked like he might have been starting to turn the corner and be the guy Stearns thought he was getting. That first home run — a pinch-hit blast against Cincinnati on August 21st — started a week in which he would hit .368/.400/.842 with 3 home runs. It may have been in series against the Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, but it looked like Schoop was slowly getting his confidence back.
Unfortunately, it was short-lived. His volatility as a hitter returned in September, and he hit just .196/.232/.294 in his final 20 games in the regular season. With every win needed to catch the Cubs in the NL Central race, he lost Craig Counsell’s trust and playing time to the likes of Hernan Perez and Tyler Saladino, both of whom were kept by the Brewers on Friday. By the time the playoffs rolled around, he was largely being used as a low-leverage pinch-hitter.
Schoop has long been known as an extremely streaky hitter, and any reasonable person knew he wouldn’t stay as hot as he was in his final week or so in Baltimore, when he homered in 7 of his last 9 games, including 5 games in a row. But if there was a surprise, it was, well, the scope of Schoop’s slump.
So what was behind it?
The impact of switching leagues can be overblown sometimes, but in Schoop’s case, there may have been a few compounding issues in his game that could have made it more of a factor.
For one, Schoop may not have known much about the pitchers he was facing, but the pitchers sure knew about him — his reputation as a free swinger who didn’t work deep into counts preceded him, and pitchers used that to their advantage.
Schoop saw fewer than 3.5 pitches per plate appearance with the Brewers, and his swings on pitches out of the zone — already high with a career average of 41% — spiked to 48.1% with Milwaukee. Contact on those swings out of the zone fell from 59.6% with the Orioles before the trade to 52.9% after it. His overall swinging strike rate increased from 14% with the Orioles to 18.2% with the Brewers.
All of that would seem to support his theory that he was pressing and trying too hard to make something happen. The problem only got worse considering that even when Schoop is “right,” he’s one of the most undisciplined hitters in the league. He actually improved his walk percentage from 3.2% last year to 3.8% this year, but that mark still finished in the bottom 3% of the league and was more than 4% lower than league average.
Players will get stuck in slumps, regardless of who they are. Even Christian Yelich had stretches in 2018 where he couldn’t buy a hit. But those players are still able to remain productive by working counts and getting on base in other ways. When you’re only seeing 3.46 pitches per plate appearance, it’s pretty much mathematically impossible to contribute if the hits aren’t falling in.
And that’s where David Stearns and his staff may have made a miscalculation in Schoop’s prospective value. Maybe they looked at his BABIP at the time — almost 30 points lower than his career average — and figured there was room for him to become more consistent once that returned to normal. Maybe they thought with different coaching, he’d improve his poor habits at the plate. Or maybe they just sold out for power because they saw another playoff berth slipping away and were desperate to try anything to jolt the offense back to life.
This was Stearns’ first trade deadline as a contender with a large amount of prospect chips at his disposal, and he cashed those in liberally. It’d be hard to chalk up the entire deadline this year as a failure, considering the team ended the season with a division title and the best record in the National League. But the Schoop deal most certainly was, and will be recognized as the most significant failure of Stearns’ tenure to this point.
The most successful people in their fields typically admit to their failures instead of trying to hide them, and take them as learning experiences. Stearns has already recognized the deal as a mistake, and decided he wasn’t going to double down on it just to satisfy his own ego. We’ll see next July if Stearns has learned from this, but at the very least, he’s shown he has the first part of that equation down.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs and MLB.com