Editor’s note: This article was written prior to the news of Carlos Rodón’s injury, which will keep him out of the Opening Day rotation. Schmidt understandably now has an even better chance of making the front five.
2023 is a big year for Clarke Schmidt. The 2017 first-round draft pick has yet to cash in on his top pitching prospect status as he enters his sixth season with the organization. He has to prove not only that he has overcome the adversity he faced in the 2022 postseason, but also that he has what it takes to stick as a regular starter in the major leagues.
This spring provides the perfect opportunity for him to jumpstart that journey as he battles with Domingo Germán to earn the fifth starter role following Frankie Montas’ shoulder surgery. He looked dominant in his first outing, striking out five of six batters faced, but was tagged for four runs in 1.2 innings in his second. Germán’s lack of minor league options may give him a leg-up in the competition, but Schmidt can try his best to force the Yankees’ hand with more performances like the one against Atlanta.
Schmidt took a significant step in his major league journey in 2022, establishing himself as one of the Yankees’ more reliable multi-inning relievers. He made 29 appearances posting a 3.12 ERA (125 ERA+), 3.60 FIP, and 56 strikeouts in 57.2 innings, getting at least four outs in 15 of those relief outings. However, he had a postseason to forget as several late season injuries in the bullpoen pushed him into higher leverage scenarios. He got BABIP’ed into submission in the Guardians’ Game Three walk-off before giving up two home runs in the sixth inning of Game One of the ALCS.
I’ve written about Schmidt’s willingness to experiment with his pitch mix twice in the past. He joined in on the whirly slider revolution that swept the Yankees pitching staff last year. He’s also struggled at times to establish an effective fastball, and I wondered how an improved four-seamer could benefit the rest of his arsenal. This spring, he’s gotten back in the lab to design a cutter for his repertoire.
The proliferation of the whirly slider across the league creates a distinction between that pitch and the more traditional gyro slider. This partition between the breakers can clump gyro-spinning pitches together, blurring the line between cutters that are probably closer to sliders and true cut-fastballs.
Clarke Schmidt's pitches today, using the old-school velocity vs horizontal movement plot. His new pitch is a true cut-fastball and comes in just a couple of ticks below his sinker. pic.twitter.com/pYioq9NrAR— Lucas (@DBITLefty) February 26, 2023
It appears Schmidt is throwing the latter, and this is exciting for fans of a franchise who employed a certain Mariano Rivera. Schmidt can lose his feel for the fastball for games at a time, forcing him to rely to heavily on his slider not only for whiffs but also called strikes behind in the count. I’ve questioned in the past whether he possesses adequate command of the slider to deploy it in this fashion, which is why the incorporation of the cutter as a pitch he can throw in the zone for strikes is such an intriguing development.
Speaking with Bryan Hoch of MLB.com, Schmidt reflected on how the cutter can be a weapon in several regards:
“I’ve noticed a lot of hitters are swinging under it because they’re expecting some sink, and it stays up with the cut... It’s been such a high strike-percentage pitch for me early on. It was almost like I started throwing it and I felt like it’s been my best pitch for years.”
He also mentioned to Meredith Marakovits that the cutter can help neutralize lefties —something he has struggled with in his career. He owns a lifetime 3.22 FIP allowing just a .265 wOBA against righties, but those numbers balloon to 4.87 and .372 respectively against lefties.
Clarke Schmidt believes his new cutter is a difference-maker - tough on lefties & effective on righties too. pic.twitter.com/GcikQ5tuVJ— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) February 26, 2023
Coming out of the bullpen, Boone could find lanes to deploy Schmidt with limited exposure to lefties. He’ll no longer have that luxury as a starter, so it’s encouraging to hear him explore ways to improve his effectiveness against opposite-handed batters. Even more encouraging is hearing him describe how he already has a roadmap for how he plans to use the new pitch. With more reps this spring, Schmidt is hoping the new pitch will catapult him ahead of Germán to win the fifth starter job.