Leading up to Day 1 of the MLB Draft on June 12, we will be conducting Q&A interviews with many prospects who are projected to be first-rounders. For a complete listing of these interviews, click here.
Next is South Carolina right-hander Clarke Schmidt, a 6-foot-1, 205 lb. native of Acworth, Georgia. Schmidt was the Friday night ace for the Gamecocks this season, posting a 1.34 ERA in 9 starts before tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery in early May.
Schmidt is projected as a likely first-rounder despite his surgery, with MLB.com (25th-Nationals) and Baseball America (30th-Cubs) projecting him off the board in the top 30. Be sure to check out Schmidt’s full scouting report over at SB Nation’s Minor League Ball.
When did you first get into baseball as a kid and realized how much you loved the game?
“Ever since I was like 2 or 3 years old when I first started picking up a bat. That’s when I first got into it, but I started playing when I was about 4 or 5. Ever since I was young, this was just something I knew I was passionate about and felt like I was born to either play baseball or always be around the sport. I’ve always loved the sport and luckily I’ve been blessed to make it to this level and hopefully play at the next level. This is something that I’ve known for a long time that I’ve wanted to do. I’ve wanted to play my whole life and I’ve always known that I wanted to make a career out of it. I’m lucky I’ve made it this far.”
Did you have a favorite team growing up? A favorite player?
“Definitely the Braves. I was born in California but I grew up in Atlanta, and growing up there we always went to the Braves games. It was always fun to watch them. My favorite player would have to be Chipper Jones. Whenever you have a favorite player you get your number after him and you try to play like him. I was an infielder growing up and I also pitched. The other one would have to be Ozzie Smith. He was a little bit older though.”
For you, was there a turning point moment when you realized you could become a first-round draft pick?
“Growing up, it was kind of funny. All throughout high school, I wasn’t a big-time prospect. I was just a high-80s guy my junior and senior year and always knew I could play at the next level at a Division I school. I got big looks from a lot of SEC schools and ACC schools, but it was always a dream of mine and a passion of mine. I knew if I worked hard and added some velocity and continued to perfect my craft, I could make it to the next level after college. For a turning point, I’d probably have to say my freshman to sophomore year in college, going through the growth spurt I had and the jumps I made. That’s when I truly knew that I could make a living out of this and be a top draft pick, reaching all those goals and dreams that every other kid has. That’s when I started to see things come to fruition a bit. I was lucky to have a lot of big leaps and jumps that I had early on in my college career that made that thought believable.”
Thinking back to the recruiting process, what went into your decision to attend South Carolina? What has your experience there been like?
“My brother [Clate] played baseball at Clemson, and being a Georgia boy, I had Georgia, Ole Miss and Clemson as some options. Clemson had a big deciding factor because I wanted to be able to play with my brother. Going into my junior and senior year when I went to visit USC, the biggest factors were just coming to see the facilities and the fans, and the coaching staff is unbelievable. It kind of blew me away a little bit. In the back of my mind, I wanted to cut my own path. In high school, my brother was always the big prospect. He was always the first- or second-round prospect type. He turned down a lot of money to go to college, so I was always overshadowed a little bit. That put a chip on my shoulder and motivated me to cut my own path. I wanted to make a name for myself so I ended up choosing South Carolina. I ended up going there, and I wouldn’t change that decision for anything. That’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life so far. The experience I’ve had here is unbelievable, from the coaching staff to the fans, the trainers and everybody who’s been involved. It’s amazing, it’s been an unforgettable experience in college. I’ve been extremely blessed to pick a school like that. I wouldn’t change my decision for the world.”
Obviously, USC and Clemson are major rivals. What’s that like, having such an intense collegiate rivalry with your brother’s school?
“The Thanksgiving dinners are very competitive, and every time we’re at home and there’s a game on, whether or it’s baseball or basketball or some kind of South Carolina-Clemson event, it’s always a lot of bickering going on and back-and-forth. It’s fun, at the same time it gets a little annoying if you’re around us too much. When I got the chance to play against him in college for two years in the weekend series format, it’s fun the way they set it up for a three-game series. That’s always fun to play against your brother. Growing up, I obviously played with him... he’s two years older than me so I got to play with him growing up throughout my whole career. Being able to play against him and be in a different dugout from him, just watching him pitch, it’s different. You’re kind of rooting for him but you’re not rooting for him. We’ve enjoyed it, being able to look back in a couple years down the road we’ll be able to talk about the experiences. It’s been a lot of fun so far.”
Clate has gone through the draft process a couple of times, being taken by the Red Sox in the 32nd round back in 2015 and then in the 20th round of the 2016 draft by Detroit. What advice has he given you on the process?
“The biggest thing is that he’s just supported me through the whole thing. He’s been through the highest of highs, the first-round type guy, and ended up turning down the money and going to college. He got diagnosed with cancer and his draft stock dropped a bit. He ended up getting drafted in the 20th round, his senior year. He’s been at the top of the top and the lowest of the lows, so he’s experienced almost everything you can about the draft. He’s talked to me about it all, and what to expect. Just to not expect too much but not expect too little. It’s obviously impossible to predict the draft until it comes around, but hopefully the best happens on draft day. I’m looking forward to that day. Regardless of what happens, it’s a special day. It’s a turning point in your career and it’s always a special moment to be with your family for it all. It’s special the way you do it.”
With Clate’s cancer diagnosis, you skipped some summer ball opportunities to be with him throughout the process. What was it like trying to balance your career as a rising star with prioritizing that situation as well?
“Hopefully nobody has to go through it as a brother or really go through it at all. When you hear initially that your 21-year old brother has been diagnosed with cancer, I think everything else gets thrown out the window. Whether that’s your priorities or his priorities. My main focus was trying to be around him and help him get through that hurdle that he had to. I had to be a brother for those times more than anything else. My initial plan that summer, in between freshman and sophomore year, was to go play summerb all in the Cape Cod League. Living down south, that was too far away from home and I couldn’t have bene around him too much. I ended up turning that down and being able to be around him during the chemo and radiation. That was probably the biggest turning point in my life, just because you can’t really control how my brother was going to respond to chemo. Obviously, there are ups and downs about chemo. Some days you feel great and some days you feel terrible. Being able to be with him through that whole process was big for me. It’s a big maturing point in my life, to be there as his brother. I was glad to have been there for him. My main priority was being a brother to him over my baseball career at the time. I had to put everything on pause for me.”
You had some more personal adversity this year, undergoing Tommy John surgery in early May. How is the rehab process going at this point?
“Everything’s going great. Obviously, it’s not a life-threatening disease I have to handle like my brother, but it’s arm surgery. It’ s not the worst of the worst. I’m doing fine and mentally I’m doing great. I have a positive outlook on it all. I’m gonna treat it like a long offseason for me, and I’ll get to work on my body and work on my craft. It’s tough to take a step back from the game for a year, that’s the worst part just watching baseball and being such a fan of the game. Being a student of the sport, it’s tough for me to still watch the game and wish I was out there. That’s the toughest part and the biggest transition I’m going through right now. The rehab process is going great. I got the stitches out two weeks ago so I’ve been doing mobility stuff and some isometric stuff. Those small things just for the first few weeks. Surgery went great, the doctors were amazing and the staff was amazing. Everything’s gone smoothly so far so hopefully I can have a quick recovery and get back as quick as possible.”
Having that surgery so close to the draft causes a lot of variability in your projections and draft stock. Does that make you more nervous about the process as draft day approaches?
“Obviously, you’re a little more uneasy about it and going into it, you don’t know what to expect. Before the arm surgery, I was kind of in control of the draft. I could go in there and pitch well one week and pitch badly the next week, and it would determine where you would go. I can’t go out there week in and week out and perform to determine my draft stock. It’s gonna happen on draft night the way it happens and the cards are gonna fall the way they fall. Obviously, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. You have dreams and goals going into the season, wanting to get drafted in the first round. Hopefully, that still comes to fruition and works out in the way I expected. The main perspective I have on the draft is that it’s a small step in the entire road of your career. You get drafted and you go to a team and get with an organization that hopefully is the best organization that fits you. In the long run, you’re trying to get to the major leagues and win a championship. That’s my main goal, to get to the bigs and be an impact player who wins a World Series. Hopefully I can get to an organization that’s the best fit for me and be able to take it from there.”
USC has three pitchers who could go on Day 1 of the draft in you, Wil Crowe and Tyler Johnson. What’s it been like going through the process alongside those guys? Is it a competition to see who goes highest?
“It’s cool to see, when you have this many top-tier draft guys. It always adds a cool atmosphere and we’re always supportive of each other. I think, Crowe and I especially, just being the weekend rotation guys, are really close and are very, very competitive. Just like I would be with my brother growing up. Both Wil and I had brothers growing up and were always competitive. It’s that kind of thing where you wish for the best and hopes he gets drafted as high as he can. I hope I can get drafted as high as I can. There’s no hard feelings around at all. It does add a little bit of competitiveness to it and makes you work a little harder. Adds a little chip to your shoulder. I think it’s a good thing to bring a little more competition, pushing you a little farther.”
What would you say is your biggest strength as a pitcher?
“Just the mental side of the game. The thing I pride myself on is competitiveness. If I have my best stuff or I don’t have it, I always like to be competitive. That’s been my no. 1 thing ever since I’ve been young. I’ve always been a competitive kid and I like to be that gritty, hard-nosed guy. Just trying to put up as many zeroes as I can and help my team win. Even when the chips aren’t falling my way, I still like to be competitive and gritty and hard-nosed. I think that’s something that’s gotten me to this level and will hopefully get me to the next level, just having that attitude and that chip on your shoulder will take you a long way.”
What’s the part of your game you want to work on the most at the next level?
“The biggest thing, and my freshman and sophomore year I learned about this, is just transitioning from start to start and putting the last start behind you whether it was good or bad. You always want to wash it of it as quickly as possible, and with relievers it’s quicker than others. Coming from freshman to sophomore year, you overthink things and you’re young. You worry about things too much and about the outside influences a little too much. I’ve gotten to the point where, week in and week out, I’m much better of washing the last start whether it’s good or bad. That’s what I think has taken my game to another step up, especially this year. I put together a lot of good starts but I didn’t think about them the next week out. The next day, I just wiped it. That’s something that’s helped my game and I’ll continue working on that. Even if it’s a bad start, just to not think about it as much and move onto the next one.”
Here’s the comp question. Which major-leaguer’s game mirrors yours the most?
“I love comps and I’ve always been interested in them, so the guys on the team would always try to comp me. We had a lot of baseball minds on our team and they always said Zack Greinke. That’s something I’ve always heard and people have always told me that. I also watch a lot of his film and pay a lot of attention to him, just trying to model my game after him. I think he’s the best comp for me.”
Do you have any expectations as to where you’ll fall on the draft board?
“Obviously, you don’t know what to expect. Going into draft day, anything can happen. My no. 1 goal coming into this year was to be a first-rounder. I think that’s every kid’s dream and every kid’s goal. Something to always set your sights on. That’s big for me, and the injury was a bit of a setback, but I think I’m still able to go in the first round. I think that’s still in the realm. That’s something that’s obviously keeping my spirits up, the talk around the draft is that I may still be able to go in the first round especially with how successful these surgeries are and how many people you see coming back even better. Some people are coming back throwing harder and playing better than they ever have, so that keeps my spirits up. Obviously, falling out of the first round isn’t the end of the world but that’s the no. 1 thing for me, my goal coming into the year other than winning a College World Series.”