Yankees seeing confidence boost in rising pitcher Clarke Schmidt

New York Yankees, Clarke Schmidt
Sep 28, 2022; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; New York Yankees relief pitcher Clarke Schmidt (86) throws a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays during the eighth inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees got to see Clarke Schmidt’s cutter in action against the Atlanta Braves, as he was given the start in the home opener. With pressure from a 5th starter spot competition, Schmidt rose to the occasion and put on a show. There’s still plenty of time left before Opening Day for Domingo German to grab that final rotation spot, but he’ll have to be stellar to keep pace with Schmidt. Entering camp, it seemed like Domingo German would be the clearcut favorite, but the tides (for now) seem to have shifted. There were plenty of great takeaways from Schmidt’s dominant showing yesterday, and it’s hard to not be excited about what he can do in 2023.

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The Cutter is As Good as Advertised

When Clarke Schmidt showed up to camp, there were all sorts of buzz surrounding him and his new cutter. A pitch designed to help him handle left-handed batters, there was plenty of anticipation surrounding how the pitch would look, and it was remarkable. He used it more than any other pitch in his arsenal (35%), and with a 45% CSW%, it did its job of helping improve Schmidt’s strike rates. A cutter is supposed to be a pitch batters swing at, and while batters only swung at 3 of his 11 cutters, that’s because he only threw 5 of them in the zone.

He knew when to attack the heart of the plate with his cutter and when to set up a batter to expand the strike zone, which shows that he has a strong feel for the pitch. Regarding the pitch movement and the cutter’s shape, it’s perfect for Schmidt’s repertoire. At 92.5 MPH, it would have been the 13th hardest cutter in baseball, and it hovers close to the zero line for horizontal movement, averaging 2 inches of sweep.

In his postgame interview with YES Network’s Meredith Marakovits, he discussed how the cutter changes his mindset against left-handed batters:

“If I get behind in the count, especially to lefties, I feel a lot more comfortable that I don’t have to dot a pitch here and there, I can throw this over the heart of the plate and get some swing-and-miss”

-Clarke Schmidt on his cutter

This mentality should help Schmidt with his issues against left-handed batters, as they’ve hit .297 against Schmidt in his career with a .372 wOBA and 12.2% BB%. He needed to overhaul his approach against left-handed hitters if he wanted to be more than a long-relief arm for the Yankees, especially considering his four-seam fastball had performed poorly. The problem with his fastball wasn’t its spin or velocity but the poor movement that allowed left-handed batters to get a hold of it frequently.

Throwing a fastball without vertical ride from an arm slot that isn’t deceptive usually leads to disaster; in this case, it led to opposing batters hitting .359 with a .421 wOBA against it. His cutter provides utility in different facets, Schmidt sees it as a pitch he can get in-zone whiffs with, and it should also be an excellent pitch for generating softer contact since it can get in on the hands of a tough left-handed hitter. When we run his cutter through Cameron Grove’s Stuff Grader, we get to see just how effective of a pitch it is.

  • Pitch Grade: 62
  • xGB%: 44%
  • xWhiff%: 27%
  • xHardHit%: 33%

Based on the early readings, this is an elite cutter we’re talking about. For reference, pitches are graded on a 20-80 scale, and 63 would round up to a 65, making it an upper-echelon cutter in this league. Last season, only 11 pitchers had a 65 Stuff Grade on their cutter, so it’s fair to say that Schmidt has one of the better cutters in the entire sport.

One of the biggest questions I had regarding Clarke Schmidt was how he’d handle left-handed batters, but this cutter certainly serves as the solution to that question. He finally has that above-average fastball that he’s searched for his entire MLB career, and while his sinker still possesses strong qualities, left-handed batters feast on right-handed sinkers. He’s seemingly set up his arsenal to use his cutter and curveball against left-handed batters with a sinker and slider versus right-handed batters, and this should bode strong results.

It gives him a breaking pitch to generate whiffs with and a fastball to get strikes and soft contact for any opponent, and most importantly, he has the confidence to live in the strike zone instead of feeling a need to be perfect with his command at all times.

Better Prepared For 2023

2022 was a learning year for Clarke Schmidt, who experienced the thrills of victory and the agony of defeat. From tossing three scoreless against the Tampa Bay Rays in place of Luis Severino at the Bronx in a thrilling win to coming one pitch short of closing out Game 3 of the ALDS, Schmidt’s been through a lot in a short time at the MLB level. If you see the way Schmidt carries himself, you would be stunned to see just 70.1 innings of experience at the Major League level. It seems that a healthy offseason, a new cutter, and the prior failures in the postseason have shaped Schmidt into the best version of himself on the mound.

A year ago today, Schmidt stood no chance of grabbing a rotation spot, and he’d get shuttled up and down MiLB since other guys on the roster didn’t have options. Now, it seems as if the fanbase would enter a state of outrage if Schmidt didn’t make the team, and it seems that he’s fully embraced the confidence the fans and organization have in him. Injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down his development, but this could finally be the season where he puts everything together.

clarke schmidt, yankees
Feb 26, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Clarke Schmidt (86) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees are without Frankie Montas for the foreseeable future, but Clarke Schmidt will have to leapfrog veteran righty Domingo German to finally have a permanent rotation spot. Despite having the odds stacked against him due to German not having MiLB options, he seems set on being a starting pitcher in 2023. He’s also going to factor into the bullpen if the Yankees are to make a deep postseason push, as it’s likely that the Yankees will go to Cole, Rodon, Cortes, or Severino before Schmidt for a playoff start. He’ll be asked to get huge outs this year in multiple roles, but this feels like a different version of the 2017 1st Round Pick than we’ve seen before.

Clarke Schmidt knows his stuff is elite (112.8 Stuff+), and if he challenges hitters to try to hit his nasty stuff, they’ll come up empty. Schmidt had a 36% Whiff% today, and while it’s just Spring Training, it serves as a preview as to what he can be if he maintains his aggressive mentality. He won’t find himself capable of pitching deep into games unless he’s able to pitch efficiently batter-to-batter, and that involves cutting down on walks.

If we see Clarke Schmidt improve upon a below-average K-BB% last season, it’s easy to see how he’s going to make waves as a starting pitcher. There’s a lot of untapped potential with Schmidt, as I personally believe there’s a good shot he pushes himself into the top 50 SPs in baseball due to his pitch mix. Schmidt tried too much to make the “perfect pitch” since he had a mediocre sinker and awful four-seamer, so he couldn’t just lob them over the heart of the plate. Command is less sticky year-to-year than stuff is, and on a pitch-to-pitch basis, executing a perfect pitch is impossible to do consistently.

2022 was about getting comfortable in a variety of different high-pressure situations, and Schmidt showed at times that he would rather walk a batter than challenge them. Picking your battles is part of being a smart pitcher, but Schmidt can start challenging guys he typically wouldn’t before. With new aggression and better stuff, we could be looking at a starter who finishes with a mid-3 ERA, potentially becoming a permanent fixture in their rotation going forward.

The Yankees have Frankie Montas and Luis Severino as impending free agents following the 2023 season, presenting questions about how the Yankees will fill potential holes in their rotation in the future. While they can still negotiate with Montas or Severino in free agency, if Clarke Schmidt is able to perform at a high enough level, the Yankees can view Montas/Severino as a luxury, not a need. Part of having multiple high-priced players like Aaron Judge means surrounding them with cost-controlled talent, and Schmidt has plenty of club control.

Schmidt’s first outing provided plenty of promise for what he can do in Spring Training and in 2023, and the Yankees could be looking at one of the best 5th starters in baseball this year.