What to expect from Hurston Waldrep in the Majors

June 9th, 2024

When the Braves took with their first-round pick in 2023, No. 24 overall, there was a lot of confidence that his electric stuff would get big league hitters out and that it might not take all that long for him to get there to test it out.

When the right-hander signed out of the University of Florida and then raced across four levels, finishing his year with a scoreless outing for Triple-A Gwinnett, it was pretty clear that he was going to be on a fast track. And the organization doesn't exactly shy away from pushing young arms up the ladder, from Spencer Strider to AJ Smith-Shawver (Atlanta's No. 1 prospect) and, most recently, Spencer Schwellenbach (ATL No. 3).

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The combination of Waldrep's current stuff and the Braves' aggressiveness made most feel that it was likely Waldrep would impact the big league staff at some point during the 2024 season, though it might have caught a few by surprise following just nine Double-A starts this season and one up in Triple-A. Now everyone will get a chance to see what Waldrep, the club's No. 2 prospect (No. 72 on the Top 100) can do against the best on Sunday. He'll become the fourth member of the 2023 Draft class to reach the big leagues, following hitters Nolan Schanuel of the Angels and the Rangers' Wyatt Langford and Pirates right-hander Paul Skenes.

Whether it's just for right now -- to give extra rest to veteran starters like Chris Sale and Reynaldo López -- or he'll get a longer runway to contribute remains to be seen, and some of that could depend on just how effective he is. Atlanta's philosophy has tended to be: Pitch well and you'll stick around.

For Waldrep, effectiveness has always been tied to efficiency. Even when he was dominating at Southern Miss in 2022 and helping Florida reach the College World Series finals in '23, his ability to find the strike zone wasn't always consistent. He walked 3.3 per nine as a sophomore and that jumped to 5.0 per nine after he transferred to join the Gators for his junior season. He gave up 4.9 walks per nine during his otherwise outstanding pro debut.

He never was terribly wild in a Nuke LaLoosh kind of way, but his inability to command his fastball to go along with a super up-tempo delivery with some effort led many to think he would eventually end up in the bullpen. And while it's too soon to throw those concerns away for good, there have been some very encouraging developments in that regard to give more confidence he could stay in a big league rotation, even if it doesn't happen right now.

Overall, Waldrep has walked just 2.9 per nine this season, and peaking under the walk-rate hood a little more shows even better signs of progress than that. In April, he walked 10 in 19 IP. Since? He's given up just 1.98 per nine, a walk percentage of just a shade over five percent since the calendar flipped to May. That includes that one Triple-A start when he walked just one and struck out 11.

Expecting that kind of pinpoint command in the bigs might be unrealistic, but if Waldrep can continue to find the zone at a more consistent rate, he's going to have success with his three-pitch mix. Waldrep hasn't been throwing his fastball quite as hard as he did with Florida a year ago, perhaps more because of the adjustment to a professional rotation routine, rather than pitching once a week in college. He's throwing it for strikes a little more and missing a few more bats with it, and he's still touching 96 mph and averaging 94 with the pitch.

The real offering to watch is Waldrep's splitter. Outside of Skenes' slider, it very well might have been the best secondary offering of any pitcher in the 2023 Draft class. He's long had it, really perfected it in the summer before his year with the Gators and continues to miss an enormous amount of bats with it. It was nasty enough that he could have gotten big league hitters out with it the second after he signed, and he's generated an absurd 55 percent miss rate with the pitch. It is an extreme spin-killer, with spin rates well south of 1,000 rpm routinely and he'll throw it to hitters from both sides of the plate.

Waldrep has always had a solid three-pitch mix, but he's also improved the consistency of his slider, which was graded as an above-average pitch heading into the year. It's more regularly a plus power breaking ball, averaging around 87 mph and eliciting a 31 percent miss rate this season.

Athletic and super-competitive, expect Waldrep to keep getting swings-and-misses in his debut and for however long this first audition is. If he can keep finding the strike zone and mixing all three pitches like he has, he could stick around with his hometown team for a very long time.