Editor’s Note: We are grateful for the opportunity to have sat down and chatted with Yankees elite starting pitching prospect, Clarke Schmidt. Clarke is not only a rising star with a big arm, but he’s a terrific young man who has overcome adversity within the game (arm surgery) and helped his family to overcome real life adversity (his older brother’s successful battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma). It is clear to anyone who gets the chance to meet him, that Clarke understands the value of family and friendships, the importance of going through life with an open heart and a curious mind, and how to work hard to meet life’s challenges with resilience. He’s also armed with a fastball that gets up into the mid-90s, a heavy ground-ball-inducing sinker, and a knee-buckling curveball.
With their first round draft pick in 2017 (the 16th overall pick), the New York Yankees selected starting pitcher, Clarke Schmidt, then a 20 year-old right-hander out of The University of South Carolina. Three years later, Schmidt has the Majors squarely in his sights.
When the Yankees drafted Schmidt, it was considered to be a risky pick. Not because of Schmidt’s talent. Schmidt had been the ace of the nationally ranked Gamecocks since his Sophomore year and scouts loved his arm talent, four-pitch assortment, and make-up. But his Junior season was cut short by injury, and just a month before the draft, Schmidt had Tommy John surgery on his pitching arm.
That created some adversity right off the bat, raising questions about his health and how he would come back from the surgery:
I was thankful to be picked by such a great organization that believed in me and showed faith in me. Usually on a typical draft day, you get all the Tweets saying ‘congrats’ or ‘I’m so glad we got you.’ A lot of my Tweets were more like ‘why are we getting this kid coming off major surgery?’
Schmidt’s response was to do his best ignore these questions and to focus on putting the work in that he needed to come back strong and perform at a high level:
I’m extremely extremely competitive and hold a major chip on my shoulder, and I like to play with that on the field. So mostly I’d just screen-shot that, and save it in my notes and go about my day and not worry about it too much. I have the ultimate confidence in myself. I don’t know exactly how my career will end up, but I know that I’m going to work extremely hard on and off the field and do everything I can to prepare my body and myself, and I know I’m going to have success in the long-term. I try not to worry too much about what people say and to just keep my head down, work hard, and go about my business.
As a kid growing up with a sports-obsessed and very athletic older brother, Clarke has been steeped in sports for his whole life. He excelled at baseball, but he also played basketball, football, and a host of other sports. “We did whatever would keep us outside, active and busy, and having fun, whether it was basketball, baseball, or football.” He was also (and continues to be) an avid hunter and fisherman.
Schmidt didn’t start playing baseball year-round until he got to high school, when he chose to focus on it as his main sport: “I was always so passionate about it – I love playing it, I love watching it on TV, and it kind of cut its own path for me. I felt like I could really do something in this sport. So focusing on baseball was the easy choice for me.” Before he started pitching, he played shortstop and third base, modeling his game on his childhood hero, former Atlanta Braves superstar, Chipper Jones: “Growing up in Atlanta, my favorite player was obviously Chipper Jones. We would always to the games. I wore #10 growing up and my whole life.”
Clarke comes from a very tight-knit family. His father is a military veteran, and was a Colonel. As a kid, the Schmidts moved around quite a bit, from California to South Carolina to Georgia, where they ultimately settled down. Throughout their travels, family was their anchor. And it has remained that way:
“We’re a very tight knit family. My brother and I stay at home during the off-season, like right now, with my family. It’s hard to get away from the home cooking. [Among his favorites are his grandmother’s homemade spaghetti, mashed potatoes and gravy, and her strawberry-rhubarb pie.] And its awesome to be around them around all the time. We try to sit down at least three or four nights a week as a family to eat dinner together, which is rare for busy families these days. We’re always together. It’s a really good thing we have going on.”
Like many families, the Schmidt family has endured it’s share of difficulties, and they have leaned on each other hard to get through them. When Clarke was in college just after the season had ended, his 21 year-old older brother, Clate, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It rocked the family’s world. But they rallied together.
Clarke had been planning to play ball in the Cape Cod League at the time, but he canceled that and decided to stay back home with his brother “to be with him during the treatments and be around him as much as possible.”
“Its really tough to put it into words what its like to see your 21 year-old older brother, who’s a college athlete, go through a cancer. You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know how to handle it at all. Nobody gives you a manual that says this is what you’re supposed to do and this is how you’re supposed to do it. You just have to roll with the punches and go with it as it is.
The one thing you do know how to do is to be a brother, be a mother, be a father and to be around him as much as possible. It’s more about being there than anything else. And when you’re there and spending all that time together, you can try and get as deep as you can with them, because they’re going through something major in their life. It can be exhausting, but you want to pour yourself into them, You want to make sure that you can open your heart up to them so that they can open up their heart to you.”
Fortunately, Clate beat his cancer; it is in remission and he is healthy and back to playing sports. Looking back on the experience makes Clarke realize that going through a trying time can make you stronger:
“At the time you really don’t know what to expect. We are so thankful. To go through that as a family, it strengthens your faith and it brought us all closer. I wouldn’t say it was ‘a blessing in disguise,’ but we are definitely stronger having come out the other end of it.”
The Yankees love Schmidt’s talent. According to Yankees executive scout, Damon Oppenheimer: “Schmidt’s got four pitches that at times are all plus. He has command, he has makeup. We really like his delivery. He’s got a chance to be a top end of the rotation type of guy who combines pitchability with power stuff. And you always like it when they’re the Friday night guy, pitching and having success in that conference.”
But what is perhaps most promising has been his ability to adjust and excel as he has moved up in levels of competition.
After he impressed during his first action back in 2018 (pitching to a 3.09 ERA in 23.1 innings in the lower levels of the minors and showing himself to be healthy and ready), Schmidt built on that success in 2019. He started the 2019 season at high A Tampa, and moved through three levels in one season, ending the season in Double-A Trenton. He finished the season with a combined 3.47 ERA and 10.1 strikeout-per-nine-innings rate across the three levels in 2019. Schmidt closed out the season particularly strongly once up at Trenton, where, in the final two starts of the season, he threw 13.2 shut-out innings, allowing only five hits and zero walks. Based on what he’s shown since returning from surgery, many feel that Schmidt has the chance to make it to the majors this season.
In college and then again in the minors, there have been moments when it all seems to come together for Schmidt on the mound. Being able to dominate at successive new levels of competition is a testament to his physical skills, his mental make-up and his work ethic and resilience. Pitching against elite teams in the SEC Conference was a huge adjustment:
“I don’t think you can attribute it to any one thing, whether its mentally or physically or mechanically. It’s really a combination. There’s a lot that goes into this that people don’t see, and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes.
I remember going into my freshman year [at South Carolina], my goal was to have thirty innings, and I ended up having the second most innings on the team, pitching over eighty innings. And I had to grind through some starts. There were times when I couldn’t even get out of the first inning. Pitching in front of those big SEC crowds for the first time was something I had to get used to. That was really the first time I experienced failure. I went home that off-season and it was one of the best off-seasons I had in my career, just going out and pushing myself, working out twice a day, really getting my body where I wanted it to be, gaining a bunch of good weight. I came back way stronger then I was. I came back throwing a lot harder. It completely changed my game. And mentally I was stronger than ever. I feel that going through that failure that year really set me up and kick-started my career. I was pissed off and motivated. I hold myself to a very high regard, and I feel like when I’m not pitching to the level I should be, it definitely motivates me.”
Schmidt had to make similar adjustments going from college to the minors, and ascending through various minor league levels:
“Earlier this year, when I wasn’t pitching to my level in the the middle part of the year, I realized that you have to take a step back and say to yourself ‘Hey, what are you doing. Let’s figure this out.’
I use that as motivation and continue to put in the preparation and the work.
After that, the results started coming and I started stringing good starts together, and was able to have a good strong finish to the year. Even my end-of-the-season scoreless streak motivated me to be better. I thought I could have pitched even better. I was like ‘Why didn’t you do this all year?!’ You use it all as motivation and it pushes me for sure.”
Being with the Yankees carries certain advantages. As a high draft pick in the Yankee organization, Schmidt has had the opportunity to interact with some of the organizations stars, whether its around the minor league facilities with major league players who are rehabbing or during Spring Training:
“When I was first drafted and I was rehabbing from my Tommy John surgery, Gleyber Torres was also going through the same Tommy John rehab. We got to be pretty close, and we have stayed in touch throughout the years. He’s one of the guys I talk to about the game. Gleyber is awesome and very patient. Jordan Montgomery, who also went through Tommy John last year and who also went to South Carolina, is a guy I always talk to and a guy I can bounce things off of.
Last year, Montgomery, Severino, Betances, were all rehabbing in Trenton. It was good to be able to be around them and watch what they do every day. When you see the preparation they do every day, it really motivates you. They breath the same air that we do and they put their pants on every morning the same way we do. But it kind of motivates you to get yourself to the same spot, to the same position that they are in.”
In an analytically driven organization like the Yankees, Schmidt has also been able to soak up knowledge and work that in to his training and preparation.
When asked about the tension between “new school” analytics approach and the old school baseball approach, Schmidt’s explained that his modus operandi is “adapt or die:”
“I’m definitely more analytic than I’ve ever been. The Yankees surround us with so many guys who can not only throw these numbers at us, but also help us understand how to interpret them. I try to ask as many question as I possibly can from as many knowledgeable people as I can. It’s definitely changing the game, and people are having success with it for a reason. So I’m very analytically driven when it comes to my preparation as far scouting reports, pitch development, and shaping a lot of my pitches.
But also, its a game. You can’t just be completely analytically driven and throw out all the things you’ve been taught growing up. It comes down to who wants it more, and it comes down to competitiveness. A lot of these teams that are winning aren’t just analytically driven. Look at a team like the Washington Nationals. These guys are a tight-knit group with a lot of camaraderie. It’s a lot more than just performing on the field or lining up a bunch of stars on the field. You have to have locker room guys and you have to have guys who want to show up to the field every day and be around each other every day. I think that’s a hugely important thing. You can see that quality in every team that has won in the past.”
On the cusp of the making the Major Leagues, Schmidt is particularly excited about the recent wave of young talent pushing their way on MLB rosters at younger and younger ages:
“There is a lot of young talent in the game. It’s fun and exciting, every time you turn on a game, you’ve got bat flips and hard-throwing pitchers. It’s exciting baseball, and that’s what excites me the most – all the youth in the game. If you are talented enough and mentally and physically ready, you should get your chance. Whoever is best and whoever can perform the best on the field, should get their opportunity. That seems to be the way the game is going with this wave of youth, with guys like Ronald Acuna, Juan Soto, and Gleyber Torres. There is a lot of talent in the minor leagues. When those younger guys get up there and get their opportunity, it’s exciting when they grab that opportunity and run with it.”
He is hoping to get the chance and to do the same. Schmidt’s goal for this next season is not only to make it to the Major Leagues but to have an impact at that level:
“I believe in my skill level. I trust in my abilities. I know I have an opportunity, and I want to make the most of it. I’m the type of guy that loves pitching in big games at big stadiums in pressure moments against the toughest opponents. I don’t just want to make it to the majors. I want to be a major contributor at that level, and think I can, especially in the second half of the season.”
The New York Yankees and their fans will be rooting for young Clarke Schmidt and waiting for him the Bronx.
The bright lights of Yankee Stadium await.
Photo Credit: Clarke Schmidt (via Excel Sports Management, with permission)