Name: Nick Schmidt
DOB: October 10, 1985
A first-round pick in 2007, Schmidt had been an afterthought in the prospect process – until now.
After surrendering five runs across seven innings on eight hits and six walks while fanning six for the Fort Wayne Wizards, Schmidt saw his season – and the subsequent year – come to a disturbing end. The flare up seemed to occur in that final outing on July 27 when he walked three and gave up four hits in two innings.
"It was disappointing, but, at the same time, it was almost a blessing that it happened early in my career and not when I am on the verge of getting to the show," Schmidt said. "You can look at it both ways, but I am looking at it as a blessing."
Surgery followed, and Schmidt missed all of 2008. It wasn't until the end of the Padres Instructional League that he saw action.
Fast forward to 2009. Schmidt, on a strict pitch count, began the year with Low-A Fort Wayne. After allowing 12 runs in his first four outings, the left-hander would give up just nine runs over his next nine games.
Schmidt was promoted from the TinCaps to High-A after posting a 4-0 record with a 2.79 ERA. He allowed 38 hits in 51.2 innings while walking 23 and striking out 59. The southpaw allowed two runs or less in eight of his 11 starts and didn't allow an earned run in six different outings. He held the opposition to a .195 average against and right-handed hitters were limited to a .169 average. He did not allow a homer in Low-A while limiting the leadoff hitter of an inning to a .278 on-base percentage.
"What we saw, was that with every start, at least with us, he just kept getting a little stronger and a little stronger," former Fort Wayne and current San Antonio manager Doug Dascenzo said. "The stuff was getting a little more crisper.
"He had good command of a breaking ball, good command of a fastball, great changeup. I think this year was the year for him to just kind of get through this, the surgery, and get everything out of the way. I would anticipate, or we would anticipate, him having a great, great season next year and a great Major League career down the road."
Moved up to the California League, Schmidt seemed to hit a wall. In his first year back after surgery and on his second league, the southpaw went 2-8 with a 7.88 ERA across 11 starts. In 48 innings, he allowed 68 hits, walked 27 and struck out 27. His stuff simply wasn't as crisp as it had been earlier in the year. He gave up four runs or more in seven of his outings and allowed seven home runs. The opposition swatted .349 off him and that number swelled to a .426 average with runners in scoring position.
"I've had pitchers in the past that came off surgery the first year, and it was basically classic the same thing," Lake Elsinore pitching coach Dave Rajsich said. "Their fastball shows up, the command not as, not there yet, but the velocity's there. The command's not there and then it wavers and the breaking ball just kind of rolls. So I think that's what happened with him
"just think he got worn down, and when he did come up, he was already getting to the backside of the peak factor. He hadn't pitched in over a year. Our goal was to get him to 100 innings, and we did that. He took a beating and found out how tough the league was, but when he'd warm up in the bullpen, you'd see the flash in the stuff that he's got. You would see him go out on the mound and take it out there, and the way he pitches, and he wants to pitch or pitch away and throw these pitches and his sequences and spot patterns were right. He just couldn't do it yet consistently. He could do it for a batter or two or even for an inning or two, and then he would lose it and get frustrated and get beat up."
"We didn't see the real Nick Schmidt here," Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano said. "I know he had a very good first half at Fort Wayne. When he came in here, he struggled a little with his command, the fastball wasn't there. I think he just got tired, just coming off of surgery.
"He got around 100 innings and that's enough. That is enough. We shut him down. Mission accomplished getting 100 innings after surgery, that's good enough right there. With the winter program that he's going to have, we'll see how he comes back in spring training. He might be there, he might still not be. I think he just got tired."
It is not uncommon for those coming back from surgery to hit such a wall. The arm was not built to come back without a struggle. Schmidt hit that somewhere during his tour in Lake Elsinore. His first three starts with the Storm saw 17 runs cross over a 13.1-inning span. He then allowed two runs or less in his next four starts. It was August 2 when everything caught up to him – 85 innings into his season.
"I went in and talked to him and saw him pitch and called Grady (Fuson) and Mike (Wickham) and I said, ‘If I were you guys, I would shut this guy down,'" former pitching consultant Bob Cluck said. "He showed us what he was about in the Midwest. By the time he made that flight across the country, that's when he hit his wall. Everybody that has surgery hits the wall at a different point. His was obviously at that point, because the guy was throwing nothing but strikes, and all of a sudden his command went south on him.
"Everybody is not a starting pitcher, and everybody doesn't have the same ceiling on innings. I think Nick is a starting pitcher, but he had surgery. Some healthy guys hit the same wall. Some hit it at 150 innings, some hit it at 180 innings, some hit it not at all the first year, this year, and they hit the wall come next year because of what they did this year.
"Getting through that injury process, for me, is still a two-year deal. It takes two years before Tommy John is a non-issue," roving pitching coordinator Mike Couchee said. "I saw a couple of times and saw him getting better and better and better."
"They say it takes 15-18 months to get back to where he was where the arm strength is 100 percent," former Fort Wayne and current Eugene pitching coach Tom Bradley said. "Now it is all about getting his arm back to 100 percent. I think he is really going to show the Padres and their fans what he is capable of doing."
The first few starts had Schmidt giving the league too much credit. The last few were just a tired arm that couldn't meet the demands. His velocity was down and command became a bigger issue.
Schmidt throws a low-90s fastball that reaches 93-94 mph and sits 89-92. The left-hander throws to all four quadrants and is not afraid to pitch inside. Most of his success against right-handers, in particular, came from his ability to throw the ball on the inner half to get their feet moving. That opened up the outer half for his off-speed pitches.
Owning a plus changeup that is a swing-and-miss pitch, Schmidt plays it off his fastball. It has impressive fade and depth, thrown with the same arm speed as his fastball. He is exceptionally gifted at setting up righties and coming back to the slip on the outer half of the plate. By getting them to cheat against the fastball, most are so far out in front of the changeup that they don't stand a chance.
It was when his arm speed suffered that the changeup lost its effectiveness. Still a quality pitch, it no longer had as much separation from the fastball.
His third pitch, a slider, remains a focal point. It has shown plus tendencies at times with sharp bite but is not consistent. It will get spinny and float into the zone. Schmidt can throw the pitch for strikes and it has a chance to become a true plus pitch with some tinkering.
"Three pitches in the strike zone," former Fort Wayne and current San Antonio manager Doug Dascenzo said. "Coming off the Tommy John surgery, every time out you could see a little more stuff. Nobody has more competitive spirit than he did. I thought the guys feed off him a lot. A tremendous young man who has a chance to have a great career."
"He has a great idea on how to pitch," Bradley said. "Before the surgery he was anywhere from 89-92 with his velocity and had a good breaking ball and good changeup. He had a pretty good feel for pitching. He worked inside to right-handers, attacked the zone and had a good idea on how to sequence pitches."
Schmidt is not an over-the-top pitcher and will struggle with his follow through, cutting off his arm and occasionally pushing pitches towards home. The Padres would like to see him utilize his height more and really drive towards home with intent. He puts a little too much stress on his arm by not allowing his body to drive towards home. It will, at times, cause his control to go awry, as his pitches are left up in the zone.
The southpaw has a relatively high leg kick and can be victimized in the running game. Given his left-handed stature, he should improve in this area in the coming year. The focus was on repeatable mechanics in 2009, especially coming off surgery.
The Arkansas alumnus is a tireless worker that is not afraid to get dirt on his jersey. He puts in the time, knowing the rewards will come. He is a player that needs to visualize his faults before complying but has cleared a mental hurdle by coming back from Tommy John surgery and seeing early success.
"I look for Nick to come back next year, would guess that he starts in Lake Elsinore, and he has a real good year and finishes his year in Double-A," Cluck said. "Nick has got talent, and he's very, very smart. I was with him a lot of the rehab process, and I'm impressed with everything about the guy. It's nice that, if there is a silver lining here, he got hurt at the right time. We got him, obviously the damage was done before we ever laid our hands on him. Now we fixed him, and now he gets through his transition year like (Tim) Stauffer did last year. Now he's ready to roll.
"Next year will be great. He's a hell of a kid. Now whether he becomes a star or not remains to be seen. Like (Cory) Luebke's and the (Wade) LeBlanc's, lefties are the hardest people in the world to scout, because there are so many guys that are left-handed and very successful with different kinds of arms. You know, the hard-throwing lefties are so rare, and the guys with average or below-average fastballs can be stars or can be bums. It's so hard to predict. Look at all the guys you've seen in your life who were supposed to be great. The pitching ability, for whatever reason, and mental skills just doesn't develop and the guy fails."
"This guy, he's got some big time upside," Rajsich said. "I really like him. We've worked on a lot of things, mechanically, once we convinced him the delivery had some flaws in it. We videotaped him in the bullpen, and I emailed it to his computer and all that, he was able to look at it and review it and see it from every angle, from the side angle, from the front angle. We did simulated games. I think he learned a lot and next year, he's the kind of guy you really wait for, for him to come out of that funk of two years of arm problems and just come out and have a monster year next year."
Conclusion: Schmidt should see his control improve in year two from surgery. With a plus changeup and solid fastball that can be slightly above average at times, Schmidt could jump up in the rankings. As a southpaw that isn't afraid to work inside, he has the stuff to excel. If his slider comes around, Schmidt has a chance to be a special pitcher.
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