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Clarke Schmidt’s cutter is finally rounding into form

He struggled with the new pitch in April, but did what quality pitchers do and made the adjustment in May.

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

In April, Clarke Schmidt was in search mode, developing a new pitch on the fly and experiencing all the growing pains inherent in that endeavor. Though the results were ugly and Yankees fans clamored for better, he didn’t panic, instead making significant adjustments to his usage of the cutter and tweaking the shape until he found something that worked in the month of May.

April also had some inherent flukiness to it. His opposing batting average was .321 compared to a .297 expected batting average based on quality of contact. A 24-point discrepancy in those numbers hinted at least a bit of poor fortune.

Even more remarkably, Schmidt came up unlucky in his solid month of May; he cut his xBA to a manageable .262, but hitters’ actual batting average hovered near .290. I don’t know if Schmidt has broken any mirrors lately, but he’s looked a little unlucky for a couple months in a row now.

Fortune aside, in April, Schmidt pushed himself perhaps too much to integrate the new cutter strongly into his pitch mix. I wrote about that trend back in mid-April, and now that another six weeks has passed, Schmidt has a big enough sample for dissection.

Our point of origin is his start in Texas on April 28 in which he was touched up for ten hits and five runs, and we’ll look at his solid May 31 start in Seattle on the other end of the spectrum to exemplify Schmidt’s effective adjustments.

The right-hander cut the cutter velo by over a tick in May after lefties torched it in April. In his clunker against the Rangers, it averaged 92.4 mph. In Seattle, that number was down to 91.1 mph. Also against Seattle and in May in general, he’s thrown his excellent curveball more often and to better results. His work is starting to pay off — Schmidt allowed 12 earned runs in 30.2 innings in May as opposed to 19 runs in 25 innings in April.

Now that we’ve established the empirical differences in his numbers and cutter usage, let’s chop up some film of Schmidt from April versus May and see where all of this applies on the field.

The most telling example of Schmidt’s cutter adjustment starts with the home run Robbie Grossman hit in Texas. Schmidt tried to bust the lefty inside with a cutter, and actually didn’t miss his location — the pitch was in off the plate. So why did the 92.1 mph cutter produce blistering contact? The answer to this question in this at-bat is emblematic of the bigger problem he faced with his cutter in April. Though the pitch is off the plate, Schmidt is stuck in no man’s land with shape and velocity.

At 92, it’s only two ticks behind his average four seamer, so even though it’s inside, it remains hittable. Therefore, Grossman reads something with velocity on the inside corner and commits his hands to it. It cuts as intended toward the hitter’s hands, but it only has 1.2 mph of horizontal movement, so it fails to find the handle of the bat and instead is squared up and kept fair.

Here’s the same pitch in the same spot a month later to J.P. Crawford.

The pitch to Crawford was thrown at 90 mph with 4.8 inches of horizontal break. Schmidt cut the velocity by two ticks, creating more separation from the fastball in both speed and movement. Crawford pulls his hands in the same way as Grossman, but the added cut and lower velocity produces early contact before the hitting zone, more toward the hands than the barrel, and he hooks it harmlessly foul.

What we see here is the same principle that makes a changeup above the knees in the zone a batting practice fastball. The cutter to Grossman is just Schmidt’s four-seamer, only slower and with a negligible amount of added movement. 92 mph with 1.2 inches of movement allows Grossman’s hands to look as lightning-fast as Anthony Rizzo’s.

The name of the game in today’s world of pitching analytics is separation — keeping a hitter off balance requires different velocities and different movements sequenced together to stay off the barrel of the bat. This is one example in an encouraging body of work that Schmidt put together in May. His batted ball luck means his numbers have even more room for improvement. Trial and error is necessary to develop a new pitch, and Schmidt’s growing pains in Texas made it clear what wasn’t working. Schmidt will continue to integrate the cutter into his repertoire, and he seems to grow more comfortable with it every outing.