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Clarke Schmidt’s cutter and sweeper have made a surprising reversal

Last year was a tale of two seasons for Yankees starter Clarke Schmidt:

Clarke A: 350 plate appearances, .236/.277/.405 slash line against, 5.12 K/BB ratio, .292 wOBA against

Clarke B: 344 plate appearances, .303/.375/.500 slash line against, 2.14 K/BB ratio, .376 wOBA against

This is not a breakdown of Schmidt’s first and second half, but instead his splits against righty and lefty batters. Most pitchers find greater success against hitters of the same handedness, so it’s not surprising that the right-hander fared better against righties (Clarke A) than lefties (Clarke B).

What is surprising is the magnitude of the disparity.

As a whole, righties performed at a level commensurate with Daulton Varsho or Zach McKinstry against Schmidt. But he turned all lefties into Kyle Tucker and Cody Bellinger, putting a ceiling on his ability to navigate a lineup as teams began to deploy as many lefties as they could in an attempt to neutralize the Yankee starter. Schmidt himself described facing lefty-heavy lineups during this period as “treading water” as he tried to find a way to mount consistently competitive at bats against them.

Schmidt’s hopes of closing the gap on lefties largely lied on his cutter. As 2023 went on, the cutter gradually became a more effective pitch against lefties. As Andrés Chávez wrote last June, Schmidt had a stretch of five starts last season where he held lefties to a .521 OPS, giving hope that he had turned the corner.

That optimism was scuttled later in the season, though, when he posted a 5.73 ERA in his final nine starts, including a nightmarish 2.1 inning, eight-run outing in August in which the four lefties in the Braves’ lineup went a combined 6-for-8 with six RBI.

Coming into this season, it would have been natural to worry about history repeating itself as Schmidt struggled to get lefties out. Instead, his performance through his first three starts has been the polar opposite of what he endured last year. On the strength of his increasingly-trusty cutter, which he’s thrown to lefties nearly as much as the rest of his pitches combined, he’s held the group to a miniscule .603 OPS. Opponents of both handedness have slugged just .278 against his cutter, down from .457 last season.

Problem solved, right?

Not exactly. While Schmidt’s problem with lefties looks to be subsiding, a new one with righties might be forming. Batters against whom Schmidt should have the platoon advantage are crushing him this season to the tune of a 1.049 OPS against. The primary culprit is his sweeper, which he uses primarily against righties and against which opponents have slugged .750 compared to .559 last year.

So, what gives?

Schmidt’s sweeper has a similar amount of drop and almost an inch and a half more horizontal break than last year, indicating stuff is not likely the problem. His command of the pitch, however, has been less sharp in the early going. Here’s a breakdown of Schmidt’s sweepers to righties last season:

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Schmidt was able to keep his sweeper low and away, usually off the plate, to righties last season, leading to the pitch’s effectiveness. As you can see below, in a small sample to start the season, he’s missed a few times down the middle with his sweeper, including on a Jose Altuve home run which is having an outsized impact on Schmidt’s overall sweeper stats.

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Encouragingly, though, there are signs that Schmidt has been a victim of some bad luck as well. The expected batting average, expected slugging percentage, and xwOBA against his sweeper are much lower than the results and even lower than last year. His sweeper isn’t getting hit harder either, as the average exit velocity he’s allowed off the pitch is in line with his 2023 performance (87.9 mph in 2024 versus 89.1 mph in 2023).

Schmidt’s only thrown 48 sweepers thus far, so it’s too soon to read a great deal into his performance to start the season. Still, tonight will be a valuable opportunity to gauge whether Schmidt’s early struggles against righties are a fluke or a worrying trend. The Rays usually field the type of righty-heavy lineup upon which Clarke used to feast last season. If he looks sharp against them — and, specifically, if his sweeper is effective against their righties — the 28-year-old could be poised for a breakout. If he looks to be treading water, though, it will be fair to question if adjustments are needed in Schmidt’s approach to righties to avoid the inverse of a platoon split that doomed his 2023 to mediocrity.

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