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Clarke Schmidt’s cutter isn’t working (yet)

Schmidt has leaned on his new cutter so far, but his command of the pitch is lacking.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Clarke Schmidt had been knocking on the door of the starting rotation for a while now, but for a variety of reasons, hadn’t been invited in. Early this season, though, the Yankees need him sorely. In the midst of a rash of starting pitching injuries, he’s getting his shot.

Schmidt’s tight-spin four-seam/curveball combo with the sinker mixed in proved to be his best assets according to pitch metrics in his first two years in the majors, but the lack of a quality fourth pitch is often the fatal flaw of failed starters. This year, he’s adding a cutter, and has thrown the new offering 26 percent of the time. He and the Yankees feel it can take his repertoire to the next level.

Schmidt may have turned in his Scranton Shuttle membership card and graduated to full-time starter, but through three starts this year, he’s looked shaky and hittable, surrendering 10 runs and too many comfortable at-bats for hitters.

Let’s get all the small sample caveats out of the way. He has all of 10.2 innings to his name in 2023, and just 81 innings for his career. Developing sharp command of a new pitch takes time and trial and error. It took CC Sabathia almost two years to sharpen his cutter before it eventually flourished, prolonging and revitalizing his career.

I understand the pivot to the cutter. The change makes sense from the coaching staff’s perspective. Schmidt’s four seamer got torched last year for a .411 WOBA and 90.3 mph EV, but the location was to blame, not the use of the pitch itself.

Schmidt’s skills and his pre-2023 approach are similar to the Astros’ Cristian Javier, who the Yankees are all too familiar with. Javier is another high-spin righty whose riding four-seamer sets up his curveball; he succeeds at the top of the zone despite his perfectly average fastball velocity.

A high-spin four-seamer, like Schmidt’s, is lethal if commanded at the top of the zone, especially with a breaking ball that has above-average spin. Instead, Schmidt showed a penchant for leaving the four-seamer in the middle of the zone in 2022, prompting the emphasis on a new, fourth pitch.

Javier’s four-seamer heat map from 2022, meanwhile, is a masterclass in controlling the top third of the strike zone. Schmidt and Javier’s stuff profiles very similarly, especially in respect to their spin rates and pitch shapes, and Javier rode that same arsenal to immediate big league (and postseason) success and a .180 xBA on his fastball.

A starting pitcher probably cannot sustain success with Schmidt’s four-seamer heatmap, so he was left a couple of choices to try to reach his potential: refine his command of the four-seam, or find a new offering. He went with the latter.

Now, let’s get into what we’ve seen from Schmidt’s cutter so far this season. It has upside; the sinker/cutter combo can be just as effective if harnessed correctly, if the two pitches come out of the hand looking similar before diverging. The reality is Schmidt isn’t landing it for strikes in the ‘shadow zones,’ and is either yanking it too far in to lefties or coming around it.

Schmidt has overthrown his cutter, working underneath the ball at release point, and it tumbles in the strike zone at times. A flat righty cutter spinning middle-in is what lefty hitters dream about. His overall heatmap (see below) from his first 10.2 innings shows the cutter concentrated either waist high on the inner third or non-competitively inside. Good hitters can turn on a cutter over the plate, even on the corner, especially if they can easily spit on the ones Schmidt misses with.

The chart represents a tiny sample size, but it’s all the info we have on his cutter as of now. Also note the wide horizontal variance on a pitch he doesn’t command well enough to throw backdoor.

An example of an egregiously flat cutter was the long ball Brandon Crawford hit in Schmidt’s first start of the season. Schmidt overthrew two cutters and spiked a curveball to fall behind 3-0, then threw this cutter. This one’s brutal. Granted it was 3-0, but it tumbled on a tee to Crawford’s barrel.

I see Schmidt trying and failing to channel vintage Corey Kluber with this approach. Kluber is the ultimate example of a contemporary sinker/slider merchant whose cutter took his game to Cy Young level without overpowering velocity. In Kluber’s 2015 season, his heat map showed pinpoint control of both the inner-edge cutter and the one breaking off the plate. There are few non-competitive pitches, and the hot zone splits the shadow zone on and a little wide of the inside corner. Kluber’s cutter spray resembles the layered uniformity of Javier’s fastball, with the common denominator being the controlled split of one of the edges.

Schmidt and the Yankees are looking for answers. A pitcher with great stuff that gets hit is a familiar predicament that the Yankees have fixed in some other pitchers, so there’s no reason to think they’ll move away from the cutter. I do see it being very effective for Schmidt if he can layer his command starting from the inside edge. The threat of the chase negates lefties’ ability to clear their hips and get their hands in on a cutter that misses over the plate too often.

Developing the cutter ultimately is the right call regardless of small-sample early returns. If Schmidt harnesses it, the effective fourth pitch could get him a place at the table long term. Until the pitching reinforcements arrive, though, he has to figure it on the fly, and figure it out quick. If he does, Schmidt is poised to finally break out as a quality starting pitcher, and not a moment too soon for this Yankees team.