Clarke Schmidt Is Channeling Corbin Burnes

Written by: Ray Butler

Follow me on Twitter! @RayButler365

My original Clarke Schmidt article was going to look a lot different than this one; the title is the same though.

At the beginning of Spring Training, I created a rough first draft of a hype piece on the right-hander. Within the article, I planned on discussing the right-hander’s offseason implementation of a high-spin cutter, a pitch that could—as Yankees manager Aaron Boone correctly put it nearly a month ago—“unlock” Schmidt as the right-hander reaches his pitching prime.

The draft of the original article also dove in to Schmidt’s sweeper and curveball, which were already two of the better breaking balls in the big leagues before the 27-year-old inserted a cutter at the top of his arsenal.

The original draft remained just that for nearly a month. A draft. Why? Because maintaining Schmidt’s modest draft day price point for as long as possible will improve my ROI this fantasy season. Simple as that.

And while my selfishness means I’m no longer the first person to publish this thought, the following notion holds true all the same: the similarities between 2020 Corbin Burnes and 2023 Clarke Schmidt are… notable.

You see, when I published my Corbin Burnes Still Has Ace Potential article in February 2020, I can’t help but think Burnes was wrapping up an offseason of preparation similar to the one Schmidt just experienced. Both pitchers are gifted with some of the best raw spin rates in the sport; despite this, both possess below average vertical and horizontal movement on their four-seam fastballs. Below, you can see both right-hander’s struggles with their four-seam in the season prior to implementing a cutter as their primary fastball. If nothing else, the table will make you appreciate just how far Burnes has come since his disastrous 2019 campaign.

The basis of my Burnes break out article (which has since become one of the most-read articles in P365 history) was quite simple: Burnes would fix the unintended cut movement on his fastball, he’d pair it with one of baseball’s best sliders, and the rest would be history. Instead, Burnes leaned into the flaw, replacing the inefficient four-seam with a cutter that he threw 31.5% of the time in 2020 (that usage jumped to 52.2% and 55.4% in 2021 and 2022 respectively), totaling a .162 BA, .203 SLG and 32.9 Whiff% for opposing hitters during the shortened COVID season. This offseason, Schmidt leaned into the same flaw, opting to implement a cutter in lieu of attempting to optimize the spin of his four-seam. The goal of the pitch, Schmidt has stated, is to give the right-hander a viable weapon to combat left-handed hitters, an area in which he (and Burnes) both struggled prior to showcasing a cutter.

From a usage standpoint, Schmidt actually finds himself in a (much) better spot than Burnes did prior each pitcher’s forecasted break out. Burnes practically overhauled his entire usage en route to his break out, evolving from throwing a four-seam 52.5% of the time in 2019 to a microscopic 2.5% of the time in 2020. Initially, Burnes’ sinker and cutter combined to replace the FF usage; eventually, the cutter became the headliner for one of the best arsenals in the big leagues.

While Schmidt’s new cutter will play a central role in the 27-year-old’s official break out in 2022, he won’t face the same usage overhaul Burnes did in 2020. The latter replaced over half of his usage with two separate pitches, the former is simply replacing 16% of his usage (and additional optimization, of course) with a singular pitch that better suits his strengths. Of course, Burnes posted a ghastly 8.82 ERA and 3.12 HR/9 in 49.0 IP (only four starts) in 2019, the season before he emerged as one of the game’s best starting pitchers. Schmidt posted a 3.12 ERA and 0.78 HR/9 in 57.2 IP (with just three starts) last season. While the duo’s primary flaw and fix are identical, the respective statistical histories are certainly not. Here’s a comparison of Schmidt’s 2022 pitch usage:

With his pitch usage during Spring Training 2023:

Please note: One of Schmidt’s Spring Training outings (versus the Nationals on March 22nd) had no pitch tracking data.

As you can see, Schmidt’s deadly sweeper (.183 opposing BA, .282 opposing SLG, 40.7% Whiff in 2022) still headlines the arsenal, but the right-hander has thrown his newly-implemented cutter more than a fourth of the time this spring. Spring Training results don’t help our fantasy teams, but Schmidt’s sweeper and cutter posting a 43.2% CSW and a 34.4% CSW respectively versus opposing hitters while representing 58.7% of the 27-year-old’s total pitches over five exhibition games is certainly a welcome sign. We’ll also take 25 strikeouts in 19.2 IP regardless of the level of competition in the opposing batter’s box.

A small word of warning: don’t be surprised if Schmidt throws his sinker more than we’d like as he continues to grow more comfortable throwing his cutter. Burnes threw his sinker 33.1% of the time during his break out campaign in 2020 (.250 opposing BA, .406 opposing SLG, 18.4% Whiff) before drastically dropping that usage to 9.1% and 6.7% the past two seasons. The mediocre sinker being Burnes’ most-thrown pitch didn’t prevent the right-hander from posting a pristine 2.11 ERA with a 36.7% K (26.7% K-BB) during the COVID season. In short, we may spend the majority of 2023 wishing Schmidt replaced a large chunk of his sinker usage with his shiny new cutter, but this evolution might not come to fruition until 2024 or beyond. This won’t prevent Schmidt from reaching new heights this season.

As you probably know, Schmidt is no longer a secret to the vast majority of the fantasy baseball community. The right-hander actually entered camp on the outside looking in of the Yankees’ Opening Day starting rotation Prior to the new year, the right-hander’s Average Draft Position was 564.29 in 62 Draft Champions leagues on NFBC. From January 1st to March 1st, Schmidt’s ADP improved to 455.26 in 167 Draft Champions leagues. Then news of the cutter hit airways. Then the Spring Training strikeouts began to pile up. Then Carlos Rodón and Luis Severino got hurt, which all but solidified the 27-year-old’s place in the Yankees’ rotation. Schmidt’s Main Event ADP? 207.40.

What was Burnes’ 2020 Main Event ADP leading up to his break out, you ask? 215.

With Schmidt only logging 57.2 innings pitched last season, it’s highly unlikely the right-hander logs a 200 inning campaign in 2023. However, assuming good health (which is easier said than done here) and production, I’m predicting Schmidt logs 160.0 IP with a >18.0% K-BB and a 3.00 ERA this season.

Know how many starting pitchers accomplished all three of those feats last season? 13. All thirteen were top-110 fantasy players in 2022 according to Razzball’s Player Rater (filtered to 15-team leagues).

I drafted Schmidt on 9 of my 12 NFBC teams this season, including at 173rd overall in my Main Event on Opening Day Eve. For lack of better words, my money is where my mouth is. If you play in a shallow league, pick Schmidt up off your waiver wire. Right now. Standard or deep league? Do what it takes to trade for him. The train is about to leave the station.

Follow me on Twitter! @RayButler365

Featured image courtesy of the respective photographer and USA Today Sports

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