Yankees speak glowingly about potential 5th starter

clarke schmidt, yankees
Jun 2, 2022; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Clarke Schmidt (86) follows through on a pitch against the Los Angeles Angels during the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have not held back their praise for 2017 1st Round Pick Clarke Schmidt, who’s entered camp generating tons of praise. After a 2022 campaign that left a lot of excitement for a healthy Clarke Schmidt in 2023, it seems as if we could get the best version of the talented righty. With Frankie Montas needing shoulder surgery that will sideline him for most of the season, the 5th starter job is going to be a fierce competition between Clarke Schmidt and incumbent Domingo German, but it seems German isn’t just being handed the final rotation spot.

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Clarke Schmidt Gets the Ace’s Approval

Gerrit Cole has been making plenty of comments that have made headlines, including his apparent dislike for getting waxed at the salon. When asked about how the Yankees can supplement their rotation with the injury of Frankie Montas, he gave Schmidt a vote of confidence.

“As far as our rotation…Clarke Schmidt’s my dawg”

He spoke on the reliability of Domingo German as well and shared his belief that the Yankees’ staff can hold itself together, but he immediately rushed to single out and praise Schmidt. Both were 1st Round Picks, though Cole was selected out of UCLA. A lot of people would look at Cole as the leader of this pitching staff both on and off the field, so this isn’t a light-hearted statement. A known pitching savant, Cole loves to look through pitch data all the time, including Clarke Schmidt’s newfound cutter that’s been getting raves throughout camp.

“He just sent me some stuff and I told him he was nasty, really. Because it was nasty.”

In an article by Greg Joyce of the New York Post, Cole seemed thoroughly impressed with Schmidt’s cutter, and as many know, Cole himself implemented a cutter in 2022, though it faded as the season went on. It seems as if there’s plenty of reason to get excited for Schmidt’s upcoming Spring, and Cole could be taking on a mentor-like role for a pitcher who’s talented but hasn’t found his MLB footing just yet. As Clarke Schmidt enters his age 27 season, it’s pivotal for him to find out what he’s truly capable of, just as Cole did in 2018 with the Astros at the age of 27.

New York Yankees, Gerrit Cole
Apr 1, 2018; Arlington, TX, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) reacts to a strikeout during the game against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. The Astros defeat the Rangers 8-2. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The ace of the Yankees’ pitching staff isn’t the only one raving about the young starter, though, as Aaron Boone seems to be very happy with where Schmidt’s at.

Aaron Boone Talks About the New Cutter

Many Yankee fans groaned at the decision Aaron Boone made in the ALCS to bring Clarke Schmidt into a close game, where he gave up 2 HRs and was charged with a loss. It’s something that people view as reason to believe Clarke Schmidt is “overrated” by the organization instead of being viewed as reason to believe the organization likes Schmidt a lot. Isn’t it interesting that in a tie game, with a manager who (according to his detractors) loves sticking with veterans who have played in that role all year despite struggles decided to go with a rookie?

aaron boone, yankees
Jul 10, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone (17) argues with third base umpire Jerry Layne (24) during the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Boone didn’t go to Domingo German once in the 2022 postseason, and that’s not because Aaron Boone was unaware that he made the Yankees’ roster; it’s because they view Clarke Schmidt as a better pitcher. There’s quite frankly no other way to explain it, in a do-or-die series, the Yankees opted to pitch the younger, less experienced, and much riskier arm in Schmidt knowing that it would be heavily criticized, and that speaks to Boone’s trust in Schmidt. When asked about Schmidt’s role on the Yankees for 2023, he mentioned the versatility he brings as a starter and reliever before mentioning the brand-new cutter.

“One of the things we’re seeing that’s encouraging and exciting early on in camp here is his cutter and how it looks, and I think can be a difference maker for him especially against left-handed hitters”

The Yankees seem really excited by his cutter, and Aaron Boone cited an important area Schmidt struggled in last year, and that was with handling left-handed hitters. When I discussed Clarke Schmidt’s change to a slider-centric arsenal, lost in the analysis was how it wouldn’t fix his issues against left-handed batters. Just a small oversight, surely not one that would explain poor outings for Schmidt or were the reason for unnecessary walks that created jams for himself or whoever relieved him.

When evaluating right-handed sliders, you’ll notice that left-handed batters tend to perform well against the pitch. To counteract this, pitchers tend to change their pitch mix depending on the handedness of the batter they’re facing. For example, Gerrit Cole uses his slider 34.4% of the time against right-handed batters, while just 10% of the time against left-handed batters, opting for his changeup or curveball, which have more vertical drop. North-south movement works best against lefties, whereas horizontal movement works best against righties (if you’re a RHP). For Schmidt, he doesn’t have much to work with against left-handed batters.

Naturally, you’d look at his four-seam fastball as the pitch to counteract his issues against left-handed batters, but that’s not exactly the case here. While the Yankees hoped he’d become more spin-efficient on his fastball, that never came to fruition, with a mere 68% Active Spin%. Spin efficiency is simply the amount of spin going towards movement, and with less of his spin going towards movement, that means less force pushing against gravity, leading to the ball dropping into the swing bath of lefties like Rowdy Tellez.

Lefties crushed his woeful four-seam fastball to the tune of a .470 wOBA, and that’s due to poor pitch shape. At an 85 Stuff+, it’s just not going to do him any favors against left-handed batters. It only gets 13.9″ of Induced Vertical Break, putting it in the “dead zone” of fastballs. Dead zone for a fastball means that it’s not dropping enough to work as an effective sinker, but it’s also not getting enough carry to work up in the zone, thus giving it a “flat” description from hitters. In simpler terms, when Clarke Schmidt throws a four-seam fastball in the strike zone, batters see it as Batting Practice.

Boone also remarked about Schmidt having successes and failures at the Major League level and how that can serve as a great learning experience for him going forward. The Yankees have tossed Schmidt to the fire in the past, and he’s up for that challenge. It seems as if Schmidt’s taken his beatings in the postseason and made extra strides to perfect his craft, as the cutter should give him an offering to help him in these tough spots with lefties. When we look at how left-handed hitters fared against right-handed cutters, we see that they struggle to generate any solid contact, averaging 86.7 MPH on the pitch.

clarke schmidt, yankees
Apr 10, 2022; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Clarke Schmidt (86) delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox during the fourth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

His sharp curveball alongside his hard cutter would give him two strong pitches against lefties, allowing him to ditch a bad changeup and “hide” his four-seam fastball better. His curveball gets sweeper-like horizontal break at 15″ of sweep, something the Yankees love, but it can be made even deadlier when paired with another strong offering against left-handed batters. Make no mistake, the cutter is something the Yankees will continue to have him use against lefties, as it was unhittable when thrown to them last year.

Left-handed batters had a wOBA below .100 against his curveball, with 14 of his 20 strikeouts against lefties coming on that buzzsaw of a curveball. The cutter would potentially help him with getting lefties to just swing more, since lefties walked 11.5% of the time against Schmidt in 2022.

Aaron Boone’s comments on Schmidt were really eye-opening, and while it doesn’t mean he’s going to be the 5th starter, it does tell us that there’s a lot of optimism surrounding his growth coming into 2023. The question remains, how exactly does a cutter help Schmidt against left-handed batters, and can we reasonably project improvement going forward?

The Yankees Could Have Another Strong Starter

Let’s evaluate what Clarke Schmidt performed poorly at in a swing role with the Yankees last season:

  • 12th Percentile Barrel%
  • 25th Percentile BB%
  • 28th Percentile Chase%
  • 32nd Percentile Average Exit Velocity

Clarke Schmidt’s quality of contact against and walk rates need improving in 2023, and the addition of a quality cutter would play a role in improving there. Let’s identify how pitchers tend to improve these areas of their game and then discuss how a cutter would greatly help them.

When evaluating a pitcher who struggles with barrels or giving up higher exit velocities, it’s typically a command issue, as it means they’re putting their pitches in areas that can be hit rather hard. This isn’t as big of an issue if you have great stuff, but when you possess a fastball (like Clarke Schmidt’s four-seamer) that grades out as a pitch with below-average stuff, it needs to be commanded and sequenced perfectly. The margin for error is a lot thinner, thus, the placement of the pitch is vital. That being said, if the shape of a pitch is perfect for inducing softer contact, it can be located in most areas in the zone and get its intended soft-contact result.

Among the three main fastball groups, cutters produce the lowest BABIP and Exit Velocity, which would help Schmidt reduce his exit velocity issues, thus leading to less damaging contact.

New York Yankees, Clarke Schmidt
Jul 30, 2022; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Clarke Schmidt (86) pitches against the Kansas City Royals during the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Where he locates the pitch will also depend on what he’s looking for in the count, as cutters from righties into lefties have a low K% (16.3%) but also a mere 81.5 MPH average exit velocity. When thrown on the outside part of the plate to get called strikes, they can be an effective put-away pitch to stun a left-handed batter. It would also set up a four-seam fastball upstairs despite its poor shape and overall adds layers to his deception to opposite-handed foes. The next issue is addressing the walks, as in spite of a 100.7 Location+ (league average), he’s well below the league average in walk rate.

This is due to a lack of swings from opposing batters, something I attribute to his two huge breaking pitches. Batters swing less at pitches with larger break. Thus, heavy-breaking balls tend to walk a lot of guys or generate called strikes. Cutters are the closest pitch to the 0 line in terms of horizontal break. Thus, batters are going to swing at them plenty. In a 2-0 count where Schmidt might throw a slider down and away and concede a walk, he could go to a cutter down and away to get a weak groundball. The Yankees have developed cutters in the past, and Schmidt could join that list.

As we see, cutters are grouped in smaller movement profiles horizontally, making them a great pitch to generate chases or swings in the zone. Matt Krook (who’s also fighting for a spot on the Yankees this Spring) worked with Tread Athletics prior to the 2022 season on adding a cutter to bridge the movement gap between his slider and sinker, and Randy Vasquez seems to have done the same thing in 2022. Clarke Schmidt’s taken the initiative, and there’s a clear motivation to take his game to the next level this season.

https://twitter.com/MarlyRiveraESPN/status/1627350551888371712?s=20

The Yankees have been nothing but positive and supportive of Clarke Schmidt, and his highly-discussed cutter could be the catalyst for a breakout season in the rotation. This 5th starter job is going to be extremely exciting to watch this Spring because Schmidt seems hungry to do more than just become another reliever on the Yankees.