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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Clarke Schmidt

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The young righty was recently shut down with elbow soreness, and that could impact his hopes of competing for a spot in the rotation

Miami Marlins v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The hype surrounding Clarke Schmidt reached a fever pitch at times last year. He found himself placed ahead of Deivi García in the organizational prospect rankings by many publications despite having pitched far fewer professional innings. And when he tantalized Yankees fans last spring with his wipeout slider, many were ready to pencil him into the rotation for this season, if not last.

2020 Stats: 6.1 IP, 7.11 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 6.43 xFIP, 9.95 K/9, 7.11 BB/9, 1.890 WHIP, 0.1 fWAR

2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 10 IP, 4.80 ERA, 4.89 FIP, 8.28 K/9, 3.93 BB/9, 1.440 WHIP, 0.1 fWAR

Even though Schmidt’s numbers from his debut season are not pretty, this should not be cause for concern. I try not to put too much weight into last year’s results given the circumstances and small sample size, and that is especially true for Schmidt.

The righty was brought on for his debut in the bottom of the fifth inning of a 3-2 game with runners on first and second - a true baptism by fire and hardly ideal for one’s first MLB appearance. In his third appearance, he made the start against a Marlins team that was clawing for a Wild Card berth in the final week of the season. I can confidently say that not many rookies have to deal with scenarios of such high leverage so early on in their careers, and that, along with the small sample size, skews Schmidt’s stat line.

Unfortunately, Schmidt was sidelined with a common extensor strain following a bullpen session and has yet to pitch in a game this spring, denting his ambitions to win a starting job out of the gate. However, it is still likely he will impact the major league roster at some point this season. Curiously, FanGraphs Depth Charts only predicts Schmidt to earn a second cup of coffee in the majors this season. Given the innings restrictions that may be placed on many of the Yankees’ starters, it is easy to envision a scenario where Schmidt pitches more than the projection of ten innings. He certainly has the stuff to get MLB batters out.

Pure filth. Even the PitchingNinja was impressed. And the numbers back up the eye test.

Schmidt’s money pitch is his slider. Even as a rookie, he leapt to the top of many pitch metric leaderboards with the sharp breaker. His slider exhibited the 11th-most average vertical movement (51.2 inches) and 23rd-most average horizontal movement (14.3 inches) in the league in 2020. This is particularly impressive when you consider most slider throwers specialize in either vertical or lateral movement, not both.

He has truly placed himself among the elite slider throwers in MLB. One could argue Schmidt has the fourth-best overall raw slider in terms of spin rate and total movement.

It is not enough to possess a wipeout pitch, though. High spin rates and drastic movement only matter if one is able to command all their pitches. The five walks in 6.1 innings provide evidence that Schmidt needs to polish his control, and the frequency with which he missed his location shows his command needs work as well.

The other major concern for Schmidt is the viability of his other pitches. The four-seamer and sinker have good velocity, sitting around 95 mph, but are still subpar offerings at the moment. The four-seamer was below-average in terms of movement while the sinker got hit hard in his big league cameo. The question becomes whether Schmidt hones both pitches, or picks one to focus on and refine.

That brings us to the stickiest issue: the lack of a legitimate third pitch. The goal still appears to be to stretch out Schmidt as a starter, and a third pitch would help immensely. We saw how much Masahiro Tanaka struggled when his splitter flattened out, and having that third reliable pitch mitigates the games where one of your other offerings is not working. Schmidt broke out on occasional changeup last year to good initial success, inducing a 67 percent whiff rate. Perhaps he can incorporate it more, as it seems fellow starters García and Domingo Germán are doing this spring. Whether Schmidt can find a third offering, and smooth out his control his issues, will go a long way toward determining what kind of impact he makes on this Yankee season.