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Helping Clarke Schmidt get lefties out

The cutter just ain’t cuttin’ it.

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San Francisco Giants v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

By now, it’s well-known that Clarke Schmidt struggles facing lefties. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. He can’t get them out. This is quite a quandary for the Yankees as they do not have the luxury of expelling him from the rotation for the foreseeable future with Carlos Rodón, Luis Severino, and Frankie Montas all injured. Therefore, it is in pitcher and franchise’s best interests that he be given every tool available to not only make it through more than one turn of a major league lineup, but also to do so while keeping his team in the game.

Through his first four starts of the campaign, Schmidt has allowed 14 runs on 22 hits in 14.1 innings for an ugly 8.79 ERA. He is allowing more than 2.5 home runs per nine, and with a home run per fly ball rate within a standard deviation of league average, we cannot assume that to regress in an advantageous direction. He also sits in the bottom ten percent of the league in exit velocity, hard hit rate, expected batting average, expected slugging, and xwOBA and in the bottom quartile in barrel and whiff rates. In short, he’s been one of the worst starters in baseball through four starts.

Much of this can be attributed to the fact that he turns left-handed hitters into peak Barry Bonds the second they dig in to face him. Lefties are currently OPS’ing 1.268 against Schmidt, good for a .533 wOBA (75 points higher that Aaron Judge’s wOBA last year) and 8.03 FIP (two-and-a-half runs worse than Yusei Kikuchi last year).

As a result, he added a cutter to his repertoire, something we’ve already covered in great detail on the site. He hoped it would give him a fastball he could throw for strikes against lefties as well as induce weak contact. Problem is, it’s doing neither. He barely finds the zone half the time he throws it — thirteen points lower than his sinker — and it produces a .559 xwOBA on contact.

In concept, he’s got the right approach — sinkers produce the largest platoon split of any pitch type so it would be dangerous to use it against lefties, and he has zero confidence in his four-seamer that severely underperforms its raw metrics. You need to establish your fastball as a starting pitcher, so without a sinker or four-seamer to throw against lefties, the cut fastball was a logical conclusion. In practice, however, he has nowhere near the command of the pitch for it to be effective, often putting him into situations where the count leverage clearly favors the batter, and he does not have the weapons to navigate out of those situations. The sweeper is still a work in progress — he often has limited idea where it’s going — and he can only throw so many knuckle curves.

That brings us to today’s prompt — finding Schmidt a different weapon to attack lefties. Eno Sarris and Fabian Ardaya had a fascinating article in The Athletic on Tuesday that talked about the rise of the sweeper as well as its pitfalls. It has a pretty wide platoon split — second-widest in fact after the sinker — because it has induced rise relative to a traditional magnus slider, meaning it’s hard to get it under a lefty’s swing plane. The traditional prescription would be to use the changeup against opposite-handed batters but as Sarris notes, some of the physiological characteristics that make some pitchers really good sweeper throwers prevents them from having a good changeup. He recommends a splitter or cutter for those guys.

Well, Schmidt tried the cutter and has yet to find success, so why not try the splitter? Schmidt is what we call a natural supinator — someone who stays on the pinky side of the ball and therefore struggles to convert the spin on their four-seamer into rise and fails to turn over the changeup. If this sounds familiar, you might remember from the piece I wrote about Schmidt’s four-seamer that he has some of the worst spin efficiency of any pitcher to throw a four-seamer. In other words, he fits the profile of pitcher Sarris describes to a tee.

At the very least, the splitter would give Schmidt a pitch that deviated from the movement profiles of the rest of his arsenal. He sticks with cutters, sweepers, and knuckle curves versus lefties, all of which have gloveside horizontal movement. The splitter on the other hand generally has armside break, taking it away from lefties. In addition, a good splitter has sharp, late downward movement — the vertical component that is sorely lacking from his cutter and sweeper — something that could mitigate the number of line drives and fly balls he surrenders to southpaws.

Schmidt has spoken many times over the last few seasons about his desire to stick as a permanent member of the starting rotation. If he’s going to have any chance of being trusted as a starter, he needs to show he can hold his own against opposite-handed batters. He integrated the cutter as the first attempt to address this issue, but until he finds better command with the pitch, he might benefit from yet another addition to the repertoire, the splitter.