Clarke Schmidt Talks Pitching

Clarke Schmidt is more than a talented, 24-year-old right-hander who made his major league debut with the New York Yankees in 2020. He’s also a bona fide pitching nerd. Selected 18th overall in the 2017 draft out of the University of South Carolina, Schmidt leans heavily on analytics as he strives to further develop an already formidable four-pitch arsenal.

His top two offerings — per Eric Longenhagen, “a power-sweeping, mid-80s breaking ball” and a two-seamer with “nasty tailing action” — have each been honed with the help of data. A third pitch, his four-seamer, is currently on that same path, while his changeup has likewise been undergoing nuanced tweaks. Big-league hitters have barely gotten a glimpse of Schmidt’s smart weaponry — last year’s cup of coffee comprised just six-and-a-third innings — but they can expect to see a lot more of him in the future. Clarke heads into the 2021 season as a strong candidate to capture a spot in New York’s starting rotation.

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David Laurila: You have a plus breaking ball. What is the story behind it?

Clarke Schmidt: “In college, I was a slider and curveball guy — mainly a slider guy — and my sophomore year, I think I led the SEC in strikeouts. I had [129] strikeouts, and if I had to guess, I got 90 of them on sliders. That was like my go-to pitch. It wasn’t very hard, but it was hard for hitters to see the spin. It was an interesting-spinning slider, and it had a good movement profile, but it wasn’t a sharp-breaking slider.”

Laurila: What made the spin interesting?

Schmidt: “It was very depth-y. Normally, when you see sliders from guys who throw mid-90s [fastballs], it’s like a Gerrit Cole slider, or more of a sharpness with it staying on the plate longer. Mine was more of a sweepy slider, kind of like Chris Sale has. It was a low-80s slider.

“When I got into pro ball, after I was done rehabbing my Tommy John, I came back for my first full season. That spring training, when I was throwing the slider, I was gripping the ball really tight. That was really hard on my flexor tendon. I kind of felt it on my elbow a little bit more than I should have… not ‘felt it,’ but I remember that after starts, my forearm muscle would be sore because I was gripping the ball so tight, trying to make it spin hard.

“One of our pitching coordinators, Danny Borrell — he’s the pitching coach for Georgia Tech now — suggested scrapping the slider and working on my curveball, which at the time was hovering around 80 mph. So I banged the slider, and what happened is my arm speed picked up, and I started throwing the curveball way harder. It went up where it was hovering 83-85 and hitting 86. That’s kind of where it is today. It’s a hard, sharp breaking ball.”

Laurila: Do you consider it a curveball?

Clarke Schmidt’s curveball grip.

Schmidt: “I do. Some people call it a slider, but I call it a curveball. It can get classified in weird ways, because typically you don’t see curveballs that get up to 85-86. And once I started throwing it like that, the spin rates went crazy on it. Throwing it harder correlated directly to a higher spin rate.”

Laurila: How much correlation do you see between spin and movement?

Schmidt: “A lot. When I’m getting swings and misses, and getting the hitters to kind of buckle and look a little foolish, those come when I’m really spinning it hard. So for me, spin rate is pretty much a direct correlation to the good movement profiles, and the sharpness on the pitch.”

Laurila: A few months ago, Eric Longenhagen wrote that your slider spin has jumped from 2,700 [rpm] to 3,100.

Schmidt: “Yes. Before I could probably get it up to 2,900 when I was really spinning it, but then last year at the alternate site we were throwing on TrackMans and I ended up getting it up close to 3,500, which is like crazy.

“Typically, during outings… what I do is throw two different versions of it. Sometimes I’ll throw one that I kind of slow down a little bit — I’m maybe trying to get a steal-strike — and that one doesn’t spin as hard. I’m trying to land it within a certain location, and it’s more vertical. When I’m trying to get a chase, or a big swing-and-miss, is when I’m spinning it really hard. That’s when you see more horizontal than vertical, and I get the higher spin rates.”

Laurila: How do the two versions differ in terms of hand-positioning, seam-orientation, etcetera?

Schmidt: “If I want to get more spin on the ball, a lot of that has to do with late arm action through my motion. A lot of times, when you’re just trying to land a breaking ball, you want to be a little bit smoother with your mechanics. For me, when I’m trying to really make it break, I try to create more hip-shoulder separation. I kind of delay everything, and then really power through it in the back half of my mechanics. I’m past the cocking phase — all of those phases — and am trying to get that last little bit of whip to it.”

Laurila: Is the grip the same?

Schmidt: “The grip never changes.”

Laurila: Is there anything unique about the grip?

Schmidt: “It’s actually very unique. I’m kind of a hybrid in between a spike grip and a knuckle curve. Whenever you see a spike grip, they have the tip of their finger, kind of the fingernail, buried into the seam. What I do is put my knuckle right on the seam. I have my fingernail, and a little bit of my knuckle — the smaller knuckle below my fingernail — on the ball. I feel that helps me have more control, and helps me to spin it a lot more. I have pretty big hands, which helps.”

Laurila: Switching direction, you throw both a four- and a two-seam fastball. The latter is your primary, correct?

Schmidt: “As far as usage, yes. I’m definitely higher sinker. I threw all four-seams in college, but then started focusing on the two-seam, because when I missed with the [four-seam], it was always running. I’ve always had natural run on the ball.

“Another thing with the two-seam is the difference in the major-league and minor-league balls. I’m able to spin the major-league ball a lot better, and have better movement profiles, than I do with the minor-league ball. They’re just completely different baseballs. When I started throwing a major-league ball, my two-seam took a huge leap. It’s a downer with horizontal movement.

“When I sat down with the Yankees this past spring training — my first major-league camp — they were like, ‘OK, let’s look at expected outcomes, and predictive measures, with your pitches.’ Basically, they grade them out for which pitches are major-league average, and which pitches are above major-league average. This is all based off analytical information. My two-seam graded out better than my four-seam, so they were like, ‘Let’s focus on throwing more two-seams to see what kind of results we get.’ I did, and once I got comfortable throwing it, the metrics just went crazy.”

Laurila: That said, you did throw 20% four-seamers in your handful of big-league innings last year.

Schmidt: “Yes. What I spent pretty much all of my alternate site working on was my four-seam profile, to create a bigger differential between my four- and two-seams. I’ve been spending a lot of my time on that this offseason as well, and have gained a ton of ground. If you look at it on a movement-profile chart, my four-seam almost looks like a cutter, and my two-seam looks almost like a changeup at 95 [mph]. The profiles are completely different.”

Laurila: What are your plans for the four-seam going forward?

Schmidt: “It will really just depend on the types of hitters I’m facing. The two-seam is what I’m mainly going to be throwing — that’s where I’m going to get my swings and misses, and miss a lot of barrels — but there are situations where you want to elevate. I can get swings and misses at the top of the zone, too. I have the big breaking ball, and I can tunnel them pretty well.”

Laurila: It sounds like your four-seam gets more cut than ride. Is that something you want, or would you rather have a little extra hop at the top of the zone?

Schmidt: “It does cut more than it rides, yes. When I was first starting to work on differentiating the movement profiles, it was really, really cutting — like too much. What we wanted to do was fix my wrist position, and my hand position, to get better tilt, and better axis, on it. In return, that was going to lead to more ride. While it would still cut, it would be less cut. Again, I worked on that a lot at the alternate site.”

Laurila: Presumably, the spin rate on it has increased…

Schmidt: “In my offseason bullpens, I’ve been spinning my four-seam around 2,400. Last year, I would be lucky to get a vertical break of 18 on my four-seam. This offseason, I’ve had a couple of 23s. Sometimes the camera can be varied — you might have misreads — and it’s kind of tough when you’re throwing indoors, but I’ve been consistently sitting around 20 with my vertical break on the four-seam. Before, that would be a long shot for me.”

Laurila: What is the spin rate on your two-seam?

Schmidt: “It’s around 2,100-2,200. I naturally spin the ball hard, but I’m also throwing it hard. Yesterday the average velo on my two-seam was 95, and it’s not easy to kill the spin with that velocity. Some guys with two-seams are trying to make it like a hard splitter, where it doesn’t spin a lot, and it has a big movement profile. For me, when it started spinning harder it also made the horizontal movement — the arm-side run — pick up. I went from getting like 15-16 on my horizontal break, to getting 18s and 19s.”

Laurila: What is the velocity difference between your two- and four-seamers?

Schmidt: “That’s another interesting thing. A lot of times, you’ll see major discrepancies in the twos and fours, but my four is right around 95, and my two is 94 flat, or maybe 93.8. The velos are pretty much the same.”

Laurila: What about your changeup?

Schmidt: “It’s a hard, downer changeup, around 89 mph. I kind of tinkered with the grip this year to get more depth on it. It kind of matches my two-seam, and obviously a changeup is only effective if it tunnels with your fastball. It spins around 1,800-1,900.”

Laurila: It sounds a little like Zack Greinke’s power changeup…

Schmidt: “Yeah. It will get mistaken a lot. People will look at the scoreboard and be like, ‘Oh, did you just have a 91-mph fastball’? I’ll be like, ‘No, that was a changeup.’”

Laurila: Eric Longenhagen has described your delivery as being “rather funky.” What would he have been referring to?

Schmidt: “Everybody has a timestamp — everybody has their own unique delivery — and I’ve always been a guy who focuses on late rotation, and hip-shoulder separation. I’m also a hyper-mobile guy, a very athletic guy. Sometimes in photos, my front foot will be down and my shoulders all the way back — not even through its first phase yet. For me, it’s a lot of separation.

“Another thing I did this past year was shorten up my arm action a little bit, just to get my arm path cleaner. After Tommy John, I had a really long arm path. It was slow, and it affected my mechanics. It was much more violent. Now I’m a lot smoother, and it looks a lot more effortless.”

Laurila: One last thing: It’s pretty obvious that you’ve spent a lot of time with pitching coaches and analysts, but what about talking shop with your veteran teammates?

Schmidt: “I did get to have conversations with those guys last year. Being in a clubhouse with Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton — guys like that who really value analytics — makes for a lot of great conversations. Those guys have been in the league for so long, and they’ve seen things change so much. They’re like, ‘Dude, analytics weren’t around at all when we were coming up.’ Video, Edgertronic — all the tools that we use now on a daily basis — tools I couldn’t go without — I mean, we’ve gained so much new information. There have never been more ways to get guys out at the major-league level. Talking analytics with guys like Ottavino, Britton, and Cole is really cool.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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TKSmith3
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TKSmith3

Awesome article. Would love to see more of this going forward, thanks David!