The new and improved Clarke Schmidt

A lot has gone right for the Yankees in 2024. Even without the services of the reigning Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole After crossing the 30% mark on the season, they find themselves atop the American League East with two games ahead of the second-place Orioles. The Rays, eight games back, are a distant third. Boston and Toronto follow with deficits of 8.5 games and 10.5 games respectively.

Beyond Cole’s absence, the Yankees have faced a prolonged 2022 MVP crisis Aaron judges and I haven’t gotten a single at-bat yet DJ LeMahieu due to a broken foot suffered during spring training. Installation man Jonathan Loaisiga pitched only four innings before requiring surgery with an internal brace. On another side, Juan Soto lived up to his expectations as a middle force. Carlos Rodon And Nestor Cortes both look like the pitchers the Yankees expected them to have in 2023. Marcus Stroman performed well, although with an unusual slight increase in walks.

For all the big names turning in marquee and/or bounce-back performances, the Yankees also saw substantial improvement from a key internal department. Right Clarke Schmidt was a top prospect long before he made his MLB debut, and he made 29 worthwhile starts last season, so it’s not like he wasn’t expected to contribute at all this year. But early in the season, Schmidt clearly looked like a back arm of the rotation.

The new and improved Clarke Schmidt

About a third of the way through the 2024 season, that’s no longer the case. Schmidt still looks like a big league starter, but he’s taken considerable steps forward and now looks like much more than a garden-variety innings eater. Schmidt increased his speed by just over a mile per hour on his cutter (from 91.5 mph to 92.6 mph) and sinker (93.6 mph in 2023, 94.7 mph in 2024). Schmidt is also inspired by Corbin Burnes playbook, throwing more knives than at any time in his career, and doing so at the expense of his sweeper and sinker. It’s not a drastic change in pitch selection, but Schmidt went from throwing this cutter about 28% of the time to 35.5% of the time in 2024.

However, the biggest change for Schmidt isn’t necessarily in the use of the pitch, but rather in its effectiveness. 2023’s opponents got the start on his sweeper, blasting the field at a .276/.331/.559 rate when fielding it. Opponents essentially became 2023-24 Gunnar Henderson by bringing Schmidt’s sweeper into play. It’s not good. (Well, not good for Schmidt.)

In 2024, Schmidt has actually taken on a little life disabled this breaking ball. Coupled with the increase in cutter/sinker speed, the gap between these harder pitches and his primary breaking ball has widened by about two miles per hour. Last year, there was a 5.3 mph gap between his cutter and sweeper, and a 7.4 mph gap between the sinker and sweeper. This year, those differentials reach 6.9 mph and 9.0 mph, respectively. Additionally, according to Statcast measurements, Schmidt’s sweeper also generates an additional 3.3 inches of horizontal break compared to last year’s court version.

The adjustments are subtle, but the changes in Schmidt’s results are not. Over his first 10 starts of the season, the right-hander boasts a 2.59 ERA (3.54 FIP, 3.38 SIERA). His strikeout rate increased from 21.5% to a career-high 27.2%. His walk rate has deteriorated, but only slightly, and at 7.6%, it’s still a full percentage point higher than the league average. Schmidt is generating more swinging strikes (10.2% in 2023, 12.2% in 2024), receiving more called strikes and has seen his opponents’ contact rates drop both in the zone and outside the plate. Last year, 41 percent of balls hit against Schmidt traveled 95 mph or faster, but this year that rate fell to 34.8 percent. His opponents’ average exit velocity is down about a mile per hour. It allows less contact, and the balls that are put into play against him are generally more timid in nature.

Schmidt’s step forward comes at the right time for the Yankees on several fronts. Not only does this fit a time when rotation depth is at a premium for the Yankees while they wait for Cole to return, but it also comes when Schmidt is still controllable for a considerable period of time. Schmidt is 28 and already in arbitration, making $2.184 million this season, but he’s a Super Two player who was only eligible for the first time last offseason. The Yankees controlled him for three more seasons.

Even though Schmidt’s arbitration price will increase significantly if he can maintain even 80% of the gains he has made this season, his price will still be well below market levels at a time when the Yankees are in the final years of some relatively hefty veteran contracts. Stroman ($18.5 million next season, plus an $18 million vesting option for 2026), Anthony Rizzo ($17 million club option), LeMahieu ($15 million in 2025 and 2026), will all still be on the books in the short term, when Schmidt’s price is particularly affordable. Given the Yankees’ long-term commitments to Cole, Judge, Rodon and Giancarlo Stanton — on top of their obvious hope of re-signing Soto — it’s even more important that low-cost contributors like Schmidt play key roles.

Speaking of Soto, his very presence on the roster made it crucial that Schmidt and other in-house arms step up their efforts in 2024. The Yankees parted ways with notable pitching depth to acquire Soto from San Diego, sending Michael King, Johnny Brito, Randy Vasquez and best prospect Drew Thorpe to the Padres in this package. King would have been locked into a rotation spot in the Bronx, and Brito, Vasquez and Thorpe were each depth options for this year’s rotation. You could argue that this is a group that values ​​quantity over quality, but the Soto trade left the Yankees with much less depth to rely on in case of injuries. A step back from Schmidt would have been further amplified with Cole on the shelf.

Instead, Schmidt has made significant progress — thanks to changes that make much of his improvement sustainable. He’s unlikely to continue to run a sub-3.00 ERA, but Schmidt looks much more like a mid-3.00 type of pitcher than the 2023 version of himself who seemed to be penalized for the mid 4.00.

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