Clarke Schmidt starts tonight for the eighth time in 2023. His struggles in those first seven starts have been well-chronicled by now, including by yours truly a couple weeks ago. Tonight, he’ll try to make it through six innings — and keep the other team off the scoreboard — for the first time this year, following a shaky outing in which he limited Cleveland’s damage to two runs in 4.1 innings. A closer look at how some of those runs came to be illustrates a lot about the root of Schmidt’s 5.83 ERA to this point in time — and what he needs to do better to improve it.
At the heart of my last piece about the failure (to this point) of Schmidt’s arsenal tweaks was his cutter, which has been ineffective and seems to have negatively impacted some of his other pitches. It’s on full display here. Perhaps the biggest overarching issue is that he simply can’t throw it where he wants to consistently, in this case catching a break and starting with an 0-1 count to Andres Giménez despite completely missing his spot:
Next pitch, he tries again, and instead sails it up and out of the zone for an easy take. Schmidt has thrown this cutter more than 21 percent of the time, and even if it’s already not his primary fastball like it was at the beginning of the season, he has to have a better feel for it than this if he’s going to use it so much:
Schmidt’s curveball has been his best pitch this year, and he’s been throwing it more over his last few starts. But while this might be an enticing pitch on an 0-2 count with a hitter on edge, it’s an easy take after the first two pitches Giménez saw.
Now we’re 2-1, and while Josh Bell is slumping, he’s still not somebody you want to see with the bases loaded. Schmidt’s sinker is now the one pitch he can reliably throw for a strike, but his command even of that has suffered this year. Jose Trevino sets up on the outer half, but Schmidt throws a whopper of a sinker right down the middle. Somehow, he gets away with it, more of a product of a slumping Giménez with already-mediocre bat-to-ball skills than anything about the pitch itself:
Now, one strike away from escaping the jam, he turns to his most effective pitch again. This time, he actually executes, the first time he’s really done so in this sequence.
It’s a called strike three if taken, and unless Giménez has the pitch recognition and bat control to stay back and flip it the other way, it’s probably a groundball out if put in play. Fouling it off is a best-case scenario.
Still one pitch away, still no reason to not throw your best pitch. Unfortunately, Schmidt’s feel for supination — the way you twist your wrist in the “turn the doorknob” fashion when throwing a slider, cutter, or curveball — is clearly escaping him, and he sails it for yet another non-competitive pitch.
He’s still confident in his ability to figure it out, though, as you have to be to survive on a major league mound. This time, he still doesn’t rip it off where he wants to, but executes well enough to get a neutral result.
Full count. He’s got poor feel for the cutter and can’t locate his breaking stuff well enough to put him away. Bell is waiting on deck. Giménez presumably knew this, and was prepared enough for the subsequent get-me-over sinker to hit it 102 mph through the infield.
Despite catching a substantial break on strike one and having several opportunities to put the hitter away, poor feel and poor location prevented Schmidt from doing it, and a run scored as a result.
None of these sequences happen in a vacuum. They bleed into each other, and the issues compound. Let’s take a quick run through the Josh Bell at-bat that immediately followed Giménez’s. Bell has been watching Schmidt struggle with location, and he’s a patient hitter — he’s walking in a career-high 14.6 percent of his plate appearances this year, and he’s never been below 10 percent even in his worst year. He’s not going to bail out a laboring pitcher by getting himself out on a borderline pitch early in the count. So even though Schmidt finally manages to put this sinker-changeup combo in a good location, he’s already pitched himself into a situation where it doesn’t really matter:
In an effort to avoid throwing a get-me-over-fastball to a strong hitter liable to crush it, Schmidt returns to the only secondary pitch he’s been able to consistently execute, the backdoor curveball.
Showing this pitch early in the at-bat, and in a need-a-strike situation for the second time in three batters, has its consequences, though. After fouling off a sinker that just clipped the inside corner, Schmidt once again fails to put away his opponent with two strikes, burying a slider that Bell was able to take all the way.
Once again, Schmidt needs a strike, and now, Bell has a pretty good idea of what Schmidt is going to turn to in such a situation. He can’t throw the cutter, slider, or changeup with much confidence, and Bell is a dead-red fastball hitter, with a career wOBA approaching .500 on sinkers in a three-ball count. That really only leaves one option, the backdoor curveball that Schmidt has already shown multiple times within his last 10 pitches. Bell is ready for it, and while he doesn’t make great contact, he still hits it hard enough to squeeze through the infield for yet another base hit.
Schmidt’s command was not this poor in 2022, and unless it improves to the point where he can once again put hitters away in advantageous counts, it doesn’t seem likely that his results will get a ton better. Though the four-seam/sinker combination he worked with up until this year wasn’t ideal, he doesn’t command the cutter well enough for it to be any kind of improvement, and it’s drastically reduced the effectiveness of his other pitches. It’s an example of where pitch design sometimes clashes with reality: The cutter/sinker combination is one that suits him quite well in theory, but his execution of it just isn’t MLB-quality. If he can’t figure out a way to improve it, look for him to cut back to the basics and return to the sinker/curveball/slider combination that got him to this point.