"They were all buddies," says Schmidt. "It was always the Fab Four. People would ask me, 'When is it going to be the Fab Five?' I would say, like, 'I just got here.' "
Schmidt showed promise in early '96, winning his first two starts, but he never pitched with the kind of confidence expected of a starter on baseballs best staff. It also didn't help that in order to keep the Fab Four on schedule, Schmidt would be moved in and out of the rotation. He bottomed out when he went 15 days without pitching and was then sent to the minors in May '96. He stayed on the farm for only three weeks, but the experience unnerved him. He went 1-3 with a 7.41 ERA after being recalled, and when the Braves had the chance to get Denny Neagle in late August, he was shipped to the Pirates without hesitation.
It was a trade that was good for both players. Schmidt got a chance to blossom in relative anonymity, and the Braves got Neagle, a lefty with All-Star credentials—and a seven handicap. "Coming to the Pirates really benefited me," Schmidt says. "I got a chance to learn in the big leagues instead of the minors. With the Braves, you've got to be ready as soon as you get there."
Last season Schmidt went 10-9 with a 4.60 ERA for the Pirates, and this year the 25-year-old has emerged as the Bucs' ace, going 8-3 with a 3.80 ERA at week's end. The key has been that he is sticking with his strengths—a fastball in the mid-90s and a good, hard slider—the mark of a confident pitcher. "I had a hard time figuring out what kind of pitcher I was," he says. "One day I'd try to pace myself [with fastballs] in the 80-to-90-mile-per-hour range, and I'd throw a lot of change-ups. This year I've gone with what got me drafted, and that's my arm. I've gone after guys."
"He has always had the ability to get anyone out," says Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "The question was maturity, and he has matured. He can be a heck of a pitcher."
Delivering on His Promise
One of the only things in baseball more anonymous than shining for the Pirates is blossoming as a star with the Twins. But just as Schmidt has come of age in Pittsburgh, Todd Walker has overcome a bad start and is making a name for himself in Minnesota.
Until last year Walker had been a standout wherever he played, first learning his sweet stroke from his high school hitting coach, Albert Belle, father of the White Sox's Albert Belle. Walker then became a star at LSU, where he broke the school record for RBIs, which had been held by the younger Belle. A first-round pick of the Twins in the 1994 draft, the young second baseman rose quickly through Minnesota's farm system. After hitting .339 with 28 homers and 111 RBIs for Triple A Salt Lake City in '96, Walker entered spring training last year as a candidate for the Rookie of the Year award. But with All-Star Chuck Knoblauch already playing second, Walker was moved to third, where he struggled not only with the new position but also as a platoon player. He hit just .194 in 108 at bats, and in late May he was demoted to the minors.
"At the time I was sent down, I had this big Softball swing and I was trying to hit 600-foot home runs every time up," Walker says. "I felt like a failure, and I questioned whether I was good enough. Did I even want to keep playing baseball, or should I just get a real job? If I had a dollar for every time I wanted to quit...." The word on Walker was that he was easily overpowered by major league fast-balls because his swing was too long and loopy and his hands were too slow.
After returning to Triple A and successfully shortening his swing, he was called back up to the Twins in September and showed improvement, batting .364 with two homers and 10 RBIs in 44 at bats, raising his season's average to .237 Still, the last week of the season, Walker criticized Twins manager Tom Kelly, who is notoriously tough on prospects, for platooning him and not giving him the chance to prove himself as an every-day player. "You really have to have the people who are in charge of you believe in you," Walker said.