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How Clarke Schmidt can nail down a rotation spot in 2024

His struggles in two-strike counts are holding him back from being an above-average starter.

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Clarke Schmidt logged another uninspiring start last night against the Blue Jays, coughing up four runs in five innings of the Yankees’ 7-1 series opening loss. It gives him 16 starts allowing three or more runs without ever completing seven innings. And while he’s largely been solid all season, certainly earning his spot as a permanent fixture in the rotation this season, there are key developmental steps I’d like to see him take before feeling comfortable with him locking up a rotation spot in 2024.

The 27-year-old righty transitioned from a multi-inning reliever role last year to a full-time starter this year, and not without significant growing pains. He gave up 14 runs on 22 hits across his first four starts, never making it beyond the fourth inning. His 23 home runs are tied for the most on staff with Luis Severino while his 158 hits outpaces Gerrit Cole by five for the team lead in 41 fewer innings. In 30 starts, Schmidt is 9-9 with a 4.65 ERA, 143 strikeouts and 43 walks in 151 innings.

In other words, Schmidt is your archetypical fifth starter — a two to two-and-a-half win player (about standard for a MLB starter) with an ERA and FIP in the mid-fours, a shortage of swing and miss in his game, and an elevated baserunner rate (15th highest WHIP among pitchers with at least 140 innings). There was hope that he could fully deliver on his first round pedigree in what’s now his sixth year of pro ball, but at this point it’s more likely that what you see is what you get from him.

Schmidt has always been a spin merchant, even going back to when he was drafted in 2017. However, this often leads to him prioritizing the raw metrics of his pitches rather than execution, and detrimental results are often close to follow. Particularly at the beginning of the year, he got too caught up in optimizing spin rate and pitch shape, sacrificing command to do so. For example, his curveball averages the 17th-highest spin rate while exhibiting the most horizontal movement vs. average of any curveball among qualified pitchers and at times it seems like he’s more concerned with maintaining his spot atop that leaderboard that making a good pitch to get the batter out.

In a handful of postgame scrums following his early starts, Schmidt, Aaron Boone and Matt Blake reflected on his scuffles. Schmidt admitted that between innings he would constantly be checking his pitches’ spin rates and movement profiles on the tablets in the dugout. Boone cautioned against this fixation, warning that chasing perfect spin and shape was causing Schmidt to lose sight of the task at hand — executing to his spots. Blake echoed these sentiments, urging Schmidt to trust that the stuff will be there and instead pour his energy into mastering location.

A perfect illustration of this is Schmidt’s performance in two strike counts, particularly 0-2, 1-2 and 2-2, or what I like to call attack counts. The pitcher is in the driver’s seat — the hitter is forced to protect and expand the zone, giving the pitcher a ton of swing and miss opportunities out of the zone. Schmidt has no trouble reaching these counts — 32.5 percent of his pitches come in two-strike counts, 28th-highest out of 213 starters who have thrown at least 500 pitches — however, he finds himself tied for the 70th-highest wOBA in those counts, good for the bottom-third of the league.

Most striking to me is Schmidt’s failure to command his breaking balls — sweeper and knuckle curve — in advantageous counts. Here is the overall heat map for his sweeper, with Michael King’s on the right as a reference:

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

And here is Schmidt’s knuckle curve, with Gerrit Cole’s on the right as reference:

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

In both cases, King and Cole have a clear target low gloveside that they are trying to nail. In Schmidt’s case, he appears to just be just hucking his breakers toward the plate with little care for where in the zone he’s leaving them. Indeed, in attack counts, Schmidt leaves his sweeper in what Statcast defines as the “heart” of the zone 19.4 percent of the time while the curve is only slightly better at 16 percent. Hitters should scarcely be able to touch a pair of breaking balls as the ones Schmidt throws in attack counts, and yet the sweeper produces a .240 wOBA and curveball .223 in those situations, good for 24th and 36th percentile, respectively, league wide.

Let’s take a look at some examples. Here are a handful of breaking balls in attack counts that didn’t end the way Schmidt hoped.

There’s a pattern here. He’s missing his spot by as much as a foot at a time, leaving all four pitches over the middle of the plate. These are pitches that should never sniff the zone, yet they look more like get-me-over breakers than chase pitches in 1-2 and 2-2 counts.

If this all sounds overly pessimistic, it should be said that Schmidt has been solid more often than not this year. Giving up three or fewer runs in all but six of his starts is nothing to sneeze at. Between his more numerous good outings and the question marks facing the 2024 rotation, Schmidt has built a solid case to be named a starter again next season.

This doesn’t mean the Yankees should guarantee him that job. They’ll have Gerrit Cole and Carlos Rodón at the top of the rotation. Nestor Cortes can hopefully take all winter to recover and start the season with a clean bill of health. Beyond that trio, uncertainty abounds. It’s fair to question whether Luis Severino and Domingo Germán have thrown their final pitches in pinstripes. Rookies Jhony Brito and Randy Vásquez have looked sharper in multi-inning relief roles than as starters while Luis Gil will be returning from Tommy John rehab. Michael King is even entering the conversation with a conversion over to starting in this final month of the year.

This winter features an admittedly deep class of starting pitchers with some top-notch quality at the top of the board. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Yankees wade into the pitcher pool, though it is also fair to question how beholden they will be to resetting their luxury tax repeat offender status. Needless to say there are options available to the Yankees, though with the offense a more pressing concern and the strides Schmidt made in 2023, he’s positioned himself well to reprise his role as a starter and can build upon that foundation by sharpening command of his breaking balls in two-strike counts.