Yankees’ Clarke Schmidt can still play a valuable role in 2023

clarke schmidt, yankees
Apr 7, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Clarke Schmidt (36) delivers a first inning pitch against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest question marks coming into the season was Clarke Schmidt, who learned a brand-new cutter that graded out extremely well in pitch evaluation models. A pitch designed to get lefties out, Schmidt has struggled to command it alongside the rest of his arsenal, and while he has a 3.00 ERA in his last three starts, it’s clear that he’s not cut out to be a full-time starter. The cutter hasn’t been the weapon it was supposed to be, and batters have barreled 12.9% of batted balls against the former 1st Round Pick.

With Luis Severino commencing a rehab assignment soon, the Yankees could get pieces in their rotation back soon, but that leaves the question of what to do with Schmidt. In 2022, Schmidt posted a 3.12 ERA in an opener/reliever role for the Bronx Bombers and proved to be a valuable multi-inning weapon for Aaron Boone. If not as a starter, Schmidt could prove to still be a valuable part of this pitching staff, especially with the myriad of bullpen injuries they’ve suffered early on.

First Time Through the Order Excellence

While at first, a 4.61 ERA looks terrible, it should be noted that small sample size ERA is oftentimes misleading. Since even the most elite strikeout starters in the league settle around 30% for their strikeout rate, that means that ~70% of batters faced result in batted balls, subjecting a pitcher to the variance of batted ball outcomes. Schmidt has a .425 BABIP against in the 63-batter sample size, but during the first time through the order, the opposition struggles to make contact, work walks, or hit home runs. When we compare his strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate the first time through to his season totals, the differences are staggering:

  • 2023 Season Totals:
    • 25.7% K%
    • 6.4% BB%
    • 2.15 HR/9
  • First TTO
    • 30.2% K%
    • 3.2% BB%
    • 0.66 HR/9

He’s downright filthy when going through the order the first time, and it’s clear that Schmidt’s command doesn’t play out for a starter’s workload. The stuff is undeniable, as his 113 Stuff+ is one of the 15 best marks in the league, but unlike most starters that grade out well in the metric (including the incredible Gerrit Cole), he isn’t getting enough results to stick as a starter. While it’s still early in the season, and there’s a chance that he could turn things around, bullpen injuries could force the Yankees to make Schmidt a reliever once again.

Schmidt’s ability to be so dominant the first time through the order should allow him to work as a two or three-inning reliever, similar to how he was so effective for the Yankees in 2022. He still needs to work on having an out pitch for lefties, though I still believe that the cutter can be this pitch. It’s a matter of feel and command, but when he finds the consistent command of the pitch, he’ll have a real weapon for his biggest foe. If not, then he’ll have to go back to the drawing board and see which offspeed/breaking pitches he can use to generate swings and misses alongside soft contact.

clarke schmidt, yankees
Apr 23, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Clarke Schmidt (36) reacts during the third inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

If the Yankees can take advantage of Schmidt’s ability to work in these smaller workloads, they could find themselves with a quality MLB reliever, even if it means Schmidt never reaches the heights in the rotation that they believe he could. Sometimes, a player just doesn’t reach their ceiling, if every athlete hit their ceiling, we’d never hear of the term “bust”, and Schmidt’s running out of starting opportunities. Injuries could still arise over the course of a long season, but the Yankees could take the Michael King route with Schmidt.

Deja Vu for the Yankees?

Back in 2021, injuries forced the Yankees to move a young RHP to their rotation, and due to struggles with command and consistency, he was moved back to the bullpen. Pitching to an ugly 5.24 ERA and 17.5% K%, this farmhand made much-needed tweaks to his arsenal, allowing him to really break out as a reliever and find his stride. Who was this reliever? None other than Michael King, who, since moving to the bullpen, has been the Yankees’ best reliever in these key metrics (minimum 50 IP):

  • fWAR (2.6)
  • FIP (2.21)
  • xFIP (2.65)
  • WPA (3.06)

He’s currently dominating after a season-ending elbow fracture, pitching to a minuscule 1.56 ERA across 17.1 IP, tied with Ian Hamilton for the team lead. While it would be irrational for me to argue that being a poor starter will lead to becoming a team’s best reliever after, it’s fair to say that some pitchers with elite-level stuff can only have consistency in relief roles where they’re tasked with fewer batters faced and rarely face the same batter twice in an outing. When the Yankees made the switch it altered the trajectory of the bullpen for a while, and without him, the Yankees would be a much worse team.

yankees, michael king
May 2, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Michael King (34) has the ball tossed back to him after defeating the Cleveland Guardians 4-2 at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

While Clarke Schmidt doesn’t have a similar arsenal to King, with Schmidt possessing a sharper sweeper alongside a curveball and sinker/cutter for his fastballs, he is a Stuff+ darling just like King. This could be a situation where the Yankees try to move King to shorter outings in higher leverage roles to have him available more often, with Schmidt replacing King’s role albeit in a less effective manner. It’s not like the Yankees lack multi-inning weapons, as the emergence of Ian Hamilton has provided the Yankees with another versatile relief weapon for their bullpen.

Schmidt could also see a velocity uptick in the bullpen, and that could create better pitch shapes for pitches such as his cutter, which could lead to better results against lefties. It may not seem like much to some, but we’ve seen Schmidt hit 94 on his cutter before, and hitting those velocity ceilings more frequently could lead to a tighter movement that generates groundballs and weak contact when running in on the hands of left-handed batters. One of the big issues is that lefties are consistently pulling the ball in the air on his cutter for damage contact, but at higher velocities, it’s going to be significantly harder to get out in front on the pitch.

It could end up being the difference maker for Schmidt going forward if he were to be moved to a bullpen role, and we could see a reduction in his sky-high 2.15 HR/9 rate. The added comfort with the pitch as he keeps using it should help as well, and I’m certain that he could improve upon what he accomplished as a reliever in 2022. Progress isn’t always linear, and sometimes you have to get knocked down a peg before you take that next big leap. The Yankees have been able to get ideal outcomes from relievers with ease, and an arm as talented as Clarke Schmidt could join that long list of relievers soon.

There’s still some hope for Schmidt as a starter in the organization, but if his role turns out to be as a reliever, he’s more than capable of being an impact arm for a Yankee squad that’ll need someone to step up in times like this where the Yankees are battered with injuries.