Schmidt finds consistency in career year

After beating cancer, Tigers prospect becomes valued reliever

Clate Schmidt allowed five earned runs over 33 1/3 innings in the last 2 1/2 months of the 2018 season. (Emily Jones/MiLB.com)

By Andrew Battifarano / MiLB.com | January 7, 2019 11:15 AM

When Clate Schmidt recalls the memories of spring and summer 2015, he's quickly reminded of the toughest stretch in his life. 

Sure, he had just competed in an NCAA regional with Clemson and was on the verge of being drafted, but at that time, life was hitting back hard in an unexpected way. Home with his family in Georgia after a cross-country flight, he got the news confirmed: the lump on his neck was nodular sclerosing Hodgkin lymphoma. 

At 21 years old, Clate Schmidt had cancer.

If it didn't sink in at the moment, when he met with his oncologist for a consultation soon afterward and watched videos of the side effects he'd face during chemotherapy treatments, the point was driven home. 

"You're sitting in that room and watching and you're like, 'Wow, I'm 21 years old and have to go through all of this,'" Schmidt said. "People who are 70 and above don't even experience this -- some people don't even experience this their whole lives."

Schmidt battled through, enduring bouts of chemo and radiation. And while there were long stretches he didn't want to leave the confines of his bedroom, something always stuck with him. During those trying days, Mike Linch, the senior pastor at NorthStar Church in Kennesaw, offered some words of encouragement.

"He said, 'Why not me? Why not be the guy who can show the world how to come back from it and be an inspiration for others?'" Schmidt recalled. "My story isn't being written for me. It's being written for those behind me. And that was always something I took to heart." 

Fast forward three-plus years and you'd be hard pressed to find someone tougher and more resilient. With the cancer diagnosis in the past, Schmidt posted his best statistical season in the Minor Leagues in 2018 between Class A West Michigan and Class A Advanced Lakeland. The right-hander saw a jump in velocity that helped him establish some consistent success.

This marked improvement, coupled with his positive makeup, made him a reliable arm that his coaches are grateful to have in the organization.

"He's one of those pitchers you want to have on your staff because he's always available to pitch. He has a pretty durable arm," said Jorge Cordova, West Michigan's pitching coach in 2018. "You can use him multiple innings, multiple days, like back-to-back days. He's always willing to pitch, always available to help."

To get to this point, however, took more than a bit of courage and mental fortitude.

Diagnosis and treatment 

The initial phone call and doctor's visit was a gut punch, but what followed actually made Schmidt sick to his stomach. The plan mapped out by Dr. Raul Oyola was four rounds of chemo followed by 17 radiation treatments at Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Georgia. It put him on the path to recovery and beating cancer, but came with significant challenges.

Any physical activity became an obstacle, because he'd end up short of breath. Most of the time, he felt sick and nauseous. And while all this was going on, Schmidt was selected by the Red Sox in the 32nd round of the Draft. At that point, however, he knew the reality of his situation. He needed to be hyper-focused on getting back to health before he could pitch professionally.

"I would never wish it upon my worst enemy," Schmidt said. "You constantly get up feeling crappy, you constantly get sick. You don't have the energy to do anything. ... 

"It's so hard to explain to people who have never experienced it, but it's pretty much like you have the worst stomach flu and you multiply that by 100. And then you can kind of grasp the surface of it. From not wanting to get out of bed and not do anything -- it's just horrible. "

Through it all, he had his brother, Clarke, a University of South Carolina product who became the Yankees' first-round pick in the 2017 Draft. The two grew up in a military household as their father, Marine Col. Dwight Schmidt, served for three decades. Clate admitted that due to his upbringing -- and a bit of his own stubbornness -- getting over the emotions and talking through the situation weren't the easiest things to do. But with his brother, he had someone in whom he could confide whenever he needed.

"Clarke was really the only person I confided in when I was breaking down," Schmidt said. "We were raised to be tough-nosed and to be able to handle situations and move on. With Clarke and I, it's something I can never thank him enough that there was someone there I could talk to. … There would be no way I'd be able to be here without him."

The radiation treatments lasted through the summer and into the first three weeks of school. After his final treatment, excited to join his teammates for his senior season, he wanted to practice and get back into gear as quickly as possible. Returning to the field didn't go exactly as he'd hoped, however.

"They were doing wind sprints and I tried to get out there and start running and I took 10 steps and I was gassed," Schmidt said. "I was like, 'Oh, my goodness, there is no way I could be able to do this stuff.' I had to get to the point where I was very in-tune with my body and had to understand that if I couldn't do something, I needed to tone it down and be able to be accept the fact that I couldn't accomplish that." 

Even if there were tough moments on the road back, Schmidt said there was never a time when he thought he wouldn't be back on the mound, or at least putting it all on the line to try a comeback. 

"It's how we were raised and how we were built and how our mentality was to never be able to accept mediocrity, never be able to accept failure," he added. "I could be OK with giving it my all and if I didn't make it I could say I gave it everything I had. But to not give everything I had to the game that I've loved my entire life would be a disservice for not only me but the game. I would never accept that. For me, it was just something that in my mind I would never accept giving up or not giving everything I had to this game."

Slowly but surely, he got back into shape. After going 8-5 with a 4.83 ERA in 18 outings, Schmidt again heard his name called at the 2016 Draft, taken by the Tigers in the 20th round. A year after he was learning what chemo would do to his body, he was signing his name on a contract that would make him a professional baseball player.

Finding consistency

Pitching out of the bullpen almost exclusively, Schmidt had his ups and downs in his first two professional seasons, compiling ERAs of 4.57 ERA in 2016 and 4.76 ERA in 2017. 

Even though he had completed his treatments, his body didn't feel exactly how it did in the past. It would take even more time to get back to the form he had as a sought-after prep prospect. 

"I really didn't get to a full 100 percent probably for two years," Schmidt said. "Even so, I didn't feel like to where I was completely starting to elevate my game again, like taking steps, until last year where I felt consistent. I think that showed in my play. I felt confident again in being able to execute those pitches and being able to trust myself and my body. It really was two, three years."

After a short stint with West Michigan in 2017, Schmidt rejoined the Whitecaps last year. Working under Cordova and regaining his strength after a strong offseason of work, things started to click. The two developed a rapport and worked on "setting an agenda" on the mound, with a focus on making the most of Schmidt's repertoire. Cordova didn't want to change much -- or anything -- about the mechanics of Schmidt's deceptive delivery, but he did want to adjust how he attacked hitters. 

"At the beginning, he didn't know how to expand the zone -- he didn't know how to throw balls," Cordova said. "He threw a lot of strikes and he was hurt, especially late in the count with two strikes because he didn't expand the zone. ... That was a process for him: how to attack the zone early in the count and how to expand the zone late in the count. He was following every instruction I gave him and he was trying to get better every day and every outing."

Keeping those discussions in mind, Schmidt had an ERA under 3.00 in two of the first three months of the 2018 season. As summer rolled around, things only got better as he recorded a 0.96 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in July and followed that with an August that saw him post a 1.64 ERA while holding opponents to a .244 batting average.

And while he was putting up the best numbers of his career, Schmidt was playing a versatile role in the bullpen. He appeared in 15 games in which he pitched at least three innings to give some valuable length in relief. By season's end, he boasted the most innings pitched (76 1/3) of any West Michigan reliever. He even got a brief promotion to Lakeland at the end of the year, allowing one run over 3 2/3 frames.

Schmidt made it clear that finding consistency in how he went about things was a major factor in his upswing. 

"I was able to attack the strike zone in my counts and in my favor," he said. "That was something I had dabbled in years before, but I hadn't had the confidence in and the ability to execute. And to be able to do that this past year, mentally, I took a step forward in my book. Being a guy that the coaches and managers would see as a go-to guy and come into tight situations and be able to execute, I really took pride in that."

During the year, he had another helping hand when he needed one. Clarke Schmidt made his debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League before getting some time in the New York-Penn League. The brothers communicated daily and almost always traded pitching tips. 

Offseason MiLB include

"We always talked and asked about our outings, how we felt, what was going on, what happened in each scenario," the elder Schmidt said. "We wanted to pick each other's brains and really do what pitchers do and ask questions."

Now, looking toward the 2019 campaign, Schmidt said he's hoping to ramp up his workouts and get his arm fresh with some bullpen sessions ahead of Spring Training. Looking to build off last season, he hopes there are more positives in store, whether that's being a go-to middle reliever or someone the organization can rely on in the late innings.

Considering what he went through off the field 3 1/2 years ago, time on the mound will always be a welcome reprieve.

"To be able to come from where I was, to be consistent and see that my hard work has paid off from the offseason was incredible," Schmidt said. "I'm so thankful for the Tigers organization for trusting me and starting to believe in me and see that in me. I just hope I can continue to produce for them and be able to take further steps and hopefully one day get closer to achieving my dream."

Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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