This sure isn’t the start to the season the Yankees envisioned for Clarke Schmidt.
Though he entered the season as the nominal #2 starter thanks to a bevy of injuries, his results so far have been more befitting of a Triple-A depth man. He’s started four games , but he’s only made it through 14.1 innings pitched, and given up 14 earned runs to go along with it — the lowest inning total and second-to-worst ERA (8.79) of the 60 pitchers to have reached the four-start threshold.
There are enough things going wrong that it’s impossible to pinpoint a single root cause or specific problem (at least from this observer’s chair), but even at this early juncture, numbers and Statcast data already show some subtle changes from 2022 that could be contributing to his struggles.
First, and most simply, there’s poor command. If you’ve watched him pitch this year, you probably don’t need any fancy stats and charts to back it up: The dude is leaving far too many pitches over the middle of the plate. They aren’t cheapies, either. Schmidt’s .508 expected wOBA on contact — think of that as like a Statcast version of BABIP, measuring only what happens when the ball is in play — ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league. Looking at the pitch locations of those 22 hits makes it pretty clear what’s happening:
There are a few decent-enough pitches up there, but you’d be hard pressed to call that good location. The majority of MLB batters are mistake hitters, meaning that if a pitcher executes the pitch they want to, they’re probably going to win the battle. Hitters make their living capitalizing on pitches that get hung out to dry over the plate, and it’s clear that Schmidt is not only throwing far too many of them, hitters are successfully punishing them.
A closer look suggests that while his sweeper and curveball make their appearances on that chart, his fastballs are the culprit. His sinker, which until 2023 was his primary fastball, has been utterly pummeled for a .486 wOBA along with a .517 xwOBA that indicates it’s not just bad luck. Meanwhile, the newly developed cutter that has become his primary fastball isn’t doing any better, getting slammed for an absurd .694 wOBA with a .494 xwOBA that isn’t quite so bad but is still, ya know, pretty terrible.
Let’s focus on the cutter for a second. Unsurprisingly, his command of it doesn’t seem to have improved much since Noah Garcia broke it down for us a bit more than a week ago. But while the development of the pitch was mostly heralded in spring training as a good thing (his four-seam fastball, which it replaced, is even worse), I’m not so sure.
The difference between a four-seamer and a cutter is pretty straightforward. One is straight, the other “cuts” to the glove side, maintaining the zip of the fastball but with just enough slider-type movement added in to get a whiff or miss a barrel. In theory, a cutter’s movement should play very nicely alongside a diving sinker like Schmidt’s. This isn’t just theory, though. Thinking about a four-seamer versus a sinker on a mechanical level, it gets a little more complicated.
Consider it this way: when a pitcher throws a four-seam fastball, they’re typically not trying to manipulate the ball as they might a sinker or a changeup. The four-seam grip is uniform and uncomplicated, and when the pitcher throws it, it’s usually going to be from their natural arm slot and without contorting their wrist and fingers to impart some other kind of movement. Naturally, that’s part of why a fastball is easier to throw for a strike than a breaking ball.
Adding a cutter requires taking a standard fastball grip and, instead of aiming for perfect backspin, in which 100 percent of the spin on the pitch is contributing to movement (we call this active spin), manipulating the release so that the ball spins at an angle — when a pitch doesn’t have perfect backspin, it gets pulled in the direction that spin is pointing to. If you angle that spin all the way to the side, so that it spins like a football being thrown in a spiral, you have yourself a kind of slider. A cutter is usually somewhere in between.
The key is that a cutter requires actively manipulating the release of the ball. To that effect, it appears that Schmidt’s switch to the cutter has also leaked into the way he’s throwing his sinker. While it spun with anywhere between 67 percent and 78 percent active spin (aka, backspin) between 2020 and 2022, that number is down to 59 percent in 2023, which one would think is almost certainly a residual effect of adding cut to his regular fastball.
Adding cut to a four-seamer can be useful, but cutting a sinker is almost universally a terrible idea. The difference is tough to see to the naked eye, but it shows up starkly in movement data. The pitch’s horizontal movement has dropped substantially from where it sat last season, and it’s up-and-down movement has also clearly trended in the wrong direction, when you take gravity out of the equation:
So, not only has Schmidt’s cutter been entirely ineffective, it seems as if it may be making his sinker worse, too. Adding to the trouble are some new deviations in release point, as he appears to be releasing the ball well-higher and off to the side than he was last summer, with a few inches of extra extension to boot:
A shift in release point isn’t necessarily a huge deal, but within the context of Schmidt’s fastball changes, it’s hard to not raise an eyebrow. As recently as last year, Schmidt saw his vertical release point adjust and drop during the season, but this is the first time we’ve seen measurable shifts in both vertical and horizontal release point. It tracks logically that the result is a net negative for fastball command: Schmidt spent most of his career throwing them a certain way — albeit with constant tweaking, as pitchers are wont to be — before making fairly drastic changes more or less out of the blue.
The release point changes, movement changes, and arsenal changes are all connected in that it’s very literally throwing the ball in a way that he hasn’t done before. Perhaps it improves with time and repetitions, perhaps it doesn’t. For now, it’s impeding his ability to avoid mistakes and put the ball where he wants it, and the damage is being done. It’ll be quite interesting to find out if he and Matt Blake will simply stick with the process and weather the storm, or if more major adjustments (or, perhaps, reversions) are to be seen in the near future. Only time will tell!