Prospect Retrospective: Jason Schmidt
Per reader request, here is a Prospect Retrospective for Jason Schmidt, who was something like the John Lackey of the National League. Schmidt was a rather big deal as a prospect back in the day, though his development as a major league pitcher had some rough patches early.
Born in Lewiston, Idaho, Schmidt attended high school in Kelso, Washington, where he was a successful multi-sport athlete. He had a scholarship to attend the University of Arizona, and with some questions about his signability he dropped to the eighth round of the 1991 draft, where he was chosen by the Atlanta Braves.
He signed without much trouble and was sent to the Gulf Coast League for his debut, where he performed well with a 2.38 ERA and a 44/23 K/BB ratio. He was a projectable sort at this point, throwing in the 88-90 range but with the chance for more, though he had some command issues to work through. I would give a similar prospect a "high ceiling Grade C" at this point, someone to watch but who would need lots of development time.
Schmidt spent most of 1992 with Pulaski in the Appalachian League, performing adequately (4.01 ERA, 56/31 K/BB in 58 innings), showing potential with his fastball and breaking ball but needing sharper command. He went 0-3, 4.01 in seven starts for Low-A Macon in August, with a 33/19 K/BB ratio in 25 innings; that's a good strikeout rate, but too many walks. Again, at this point the byword was potential and he would still have rated as a high-ceiling C type.
Schmidt went to High-A Durham in the Carolina League in 1993 and had a mediocre season, posting a 4.94 ERA with a 7-11 record. His K/BB wasn't bad at 110/47 in 117 innings, but he gave up 128 hits and was considered something of a disappointment, not making much progress with his secondary pitches. He was still just 20 years old, however, and the Braves already had a reputation for knowing how to get the most out of high school arms. Grade C with higher potential would still be the right call.
That changed in 1994. Moved up to Double-A Greenville in the Southern League, Schmidt saw his velocity bump up a bit. He also made significant improvements with his secondary pitches (slider, curve, changeup). Better mechanical consistency helped overall command of all his offerings, resulting in a 3.65 ERA and a 131/54 K/BB in 141 innings. He was now looking something like the mid-rotation starter projected by scouts in high school. Eddie Epstein gave Schmidt a Grade B in the 1995 STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook, and I would have agreed with that.
Although he opened '95 on the major league roster, Schmidt spent most of the season with Triple-A Richmond in the International League, where he posted a 2.25 ERA with a 95/48 K/BB in 116 innings, with only two homers allowed all season. He pitched 25 fairly ugly innings in the majors with a 5.76 ERA and a 19/18 K/BB ratio, but scouting reports were very positive, pointing to a 90-95 MPH fastball, a very good slider, and a workable changeup and curveball. I gave him a Grade A in 1996 and ranked him as the Number Three pitching prospect in the baseball world, behind Paul Wilson and Billy Wagner.
It took time. Command problems and a minor injury resulted in poor numbers with the Braves (6.75 ERA, 48/32 K/BB in 59 innings, 69 hits) in '96. Atlanta then shipped him to Pittsburgh as part of a trade for veteran Denny Neagle. Starting regularly in '97 with the Pirates, he went 10-9, 4.60 in 188 innings. He put up similar numbers for the next few years, eating 200+ innings in '98 and '99 with better-than-average but not dominant performance.
The big step forward occurred in 2002 after he was traded to the San Francisco Giants, where he cut his ERA to 3.45 and posted a then-career best 4.4 WAR. In 2003, at age 30, his ERA dropped down to an NL-leading 2.34, with 17-5 record and a 180 ERA+ and a 208/46 K/BB ratio, resulting in a 6.6 WAR. He was excellent again in '04 (136 ERA+, 6.4 WAR).
While he remained an effective pitcher in '05 and '06 (3.1, 3.9 WAR), his K/IP ratio went into a steep decline dropping from 10.04 in '04 to 7.59 in '06. Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!
Despite that huge blinking red light, he got a three-year, $47,000,000 contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was also 34 years old entering '07 and it promptly went to hell for him, a shoulder injury limiting him to six unproductive starts. He never made it back to effectiveness, retiring at the end of 2009, his contact turning into one of the great free agent failures in recent history.
At his peak, though, Schmidt was an excellent pitcher and it isn't fair to remember him just for the failure with the Dodgers. Overall he went 130-96, .575 with a 3.96 ERA, 110 ERA+ in 1996 innings, with a 1758/792 K/BB ratio.
Sim Score comps include several contemporaries: Josh Beckett, Carlos Zambrano, John Lackey, Ramon Martinez, Ted Lilly, Dan Petry, Hideo Nomo, Pat Hentgen, and Earl Wilson round out his list.
Schmidt finished with a 37.6 WAR. Among pitchers with a similar number of innings pitched, this puts him in a neighborhood with Kevin Tapani (38.5), Don Newcombe (37.7), Jim Maloney (37.0), Jose Rijo (36.7), Bill Singer (35.9), and Dennis Leonard (35.7), who were all excellent at their peaks.