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Clarke Schmidt should take a cue from Diamondbacks’ Brandon Pfaadt

The Diamondbacks unlocked Brandon Pfaadt by pivoting to a sinker as his primary offering. Could the Yankees do the same with Schmidt?

MLB: New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

A postseason without the presence of the Bombers is always a deflating sight, but the young Arizona Diamondbacks were a breath of fresh air for the baseball world. They got contributions from pretty much everyone in their unlikely run to the World Series, including from their rookies.

While watching young Brandon Pfaadt in the playoffs, I was reminded of the Yankees’ Clarke Schmidt. Upon review of their arsenals, both pitchers’ sweepers profile similarly in usage and spin along with some fundamental mechanical similarities. Pfaadt’s quick turnaround made me consider the possibility of the same for Schmidt with the same tweak.

After being hit hard in the regular season, Diamondbacks pitching coach Brent Strom made a couple of changes to maximize Pfaadt’s effectiveness. Early in the season, Pfaadt used his four-seamer heavily as a primary offering and didn’t even feature a sinker until July. He posted a 5.72 ERA in 18 starts and almost lost his grip on a starting rotation spot by September using the fastball primarily.

Much of Pfaadt’s early issues came with his heater getting hammered by lefties — he threw it to lefties 47.5 percent of the time and they slugged a whopping .557 on the pitch in his 96 regular-season innings. Schmidt’s cutter, his primary offering at 34.2 percent to lefties, was similarly ineffective. Lefties slugged .536 on it, and even as he played with its location and shape later on in the season, he couldn’t find a way to get lefties out with it. The pitch was putrid in the first half, but Matt Blake and the coaching staff stuck with it, somewhat perplexingly.

Each pitcher’s backdoor breaking ball is a legitimate weapon to lefties, but both had trouble getting into counts to throw it. Pfaadt’s adjusted by essentially replacing the four-seamer with the sinker, and it paid dividends immediately: he posted 22 innings in the playoffs, surrendering eight earned runs for a 3.22 ERA in the Diamondbacks’ surprise run to the World Series. Facing the best competition of his young career, he shaped himself into a valuable piece of their pitching puzzle by changing his primary offering to scheme better against lefties.

The sinker and sweeper tunnel very closely, and the sweeper plays much better off the sinker than the four-seamer. Hitters looking for the sweeper can more easily differentiate between that and the four-seamer up in the zone. This made Pfaadt’s stuff predictable and precluded the deception needed to get through a lineup multiple times. In the World Series, Rangers hitters took Pfaadt’s sinkers for strikes expecting them to sweep below the zone, allowing him to steal strikes and get into favorable breaking ball counts. Here’s an example of a sinker that Nathaniel Lowe takes for a strike:

Now consider this pitch to start an at-bat against Evan Carter. The threat of the sinker means Pfaadt can go to his sweeper earlier in counts and get more takes on the pitch, which is exactly what happens here:

Schmidt has flashed a very similar sinker to lefties at times, throwing it 17 percent of the time to them, about half as often as he throws the cutter. I see the potential for it to work as a primary pitch to keep lefties from elevating or pulling their hands inside the cutter. He uses his sinker very similarly to Pfaadt here:

Schmidt wrangled with the cutter all year, going to it over and over in key situations to lefties. More often than not, it wasn’t good enough. To me, he’s leaving meat on the bone by not sequencing like Pfaadt. Here’s a breaking ball that would tunnel beautifully with the above sinker:

Strom’s adjustment, though common sense, proved to be exactly what Pfaadt needed. There was definite potential in Schmidt this season as there was in Pfaadt, but lefties torched him and at times he wasn’t a viable starter. The one-dimensionality also left his breaking stuff prone to predictability — two usable pitches in a vacuum, but they need their foil to keep power hitters off-balance. Both of Schmidt’s breaking balls performed well in 2023, but he lacked a primary pitch beyond the lackluster cutter and couldn’t take full advantage of the solid secondary pitch. Pfaadt, like Schmidt, doesn’t necessarily light up the radar gun and wasn’t getting it done with his heater.

In the playoffs, the sinker adjustment immediately helped Pfaadt get more competitive against left-handed hitters and allowed his best pitch, his breaking ball, to shine through. Schmidt’s modest success came in spite of his cutter, not because of it, and pivoting to the sinker could pay the same dividends that Strom coaxed out of his young pitcher.