There is a lot to see in any given Ken Waldichuk start. A lot of different pitches. A lot of different shapes. A lot of frustrated opposing hitters.
The Yankees' No. 6 prospect enters this week with a 1.14 ERA and 40 strikeouts through his first five starts of the season at Double-A Somerset. His 44.9 percent strikeout rate leads Double-A qualifiers and ranks third in all of the Minors. He's yet to fan fewer than six batters in a 2022 outing, and he doubled that mark with a career-best 12 punchouts over five no-hit innings Sunday at home against New Hampshire.
Waldichuk isn't just closing in on Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for the first time in his career -- he's pitching with a level of dominance that could get him to the Bronx before the season is up.
MLB Pipeline caught up with the 2019 fifth-rounder before our Game of the Month at Somerset on April 28 to gain a better understanding of the arsenal that's made him such a force in the Eastern League to begin the 2022 season. What follows are pictures of the grips he currently uses for all four of his pitches, along with video of called strikes and whiffs using those offerings from his April 23 outing in Hartford. We chose that start in particular because the MiLB.TV feed at Dunkin' Donuts Park is lined up almost perfectly straight behind the mound, allowing viewers to see the movement on Waldichuk's pitches all the more clearly.
While he did allow three runs over 4 1/3 innings that night, Waldichuk threw 70 pitches and managed 23 called strikes and whiffs combined. That's a 32.9 percent CSW rate in the outing, roughly the same as Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano's mark of 32.8 percent for the season. Generally, a CSW rate of 30 or above is considered good, so this was still a quality outing from that standpoint. Take a look at Waldichuk's movement and location that night, and it's pretty easy to see why the southpaw was difficult to hit. (Interesting tidbit: all nine Hartford starting hitters batted from the right side that night.)
"I have pitches that move in four different directions, kind of like a northwest, northeast, southwest, southeast," Waldichuk said. "I just want to aim them all middle and let them do their different things."
The called strikes and whiffs:
Waldichuk had solid results as a freshman and sophomore at St. Mary's College, working first in a bullpen role, followed by a starting spot in year two. Ahead of his junior season on campus, he tried to throw harder, perhaps knowing that the Draft was ahead of him. He and his teammates took to basic Driveline videos -- ones designed for arm health and strengthening, but nothing that was geared toward his specific delivery or existing strengths.
"No one was telling us if we were doing them right," he said. "So I think that's what led to everything going wrong."
During those adjustments, his previously riding fastball developed more cutting movement like a two-seamer. His velocity parked around 89-92 mph -- fine for the college ranks, but nothing hugely special for a 6-foot-4 left-hander hoping to climb toward the pros. The Yankees drafted Waldichuk in the fifth round of the 2019 Draft and immediately got to work in restoring the previous run on his fastball and adding a little more velocity through their own guided program, starting during the lost pandemic year when Waldichuk would send video to coaches and coordinators and receive detailed feedback in return.
The improved heater was certainly on display in the April 23 outing. Thirteen of the 23 called strikes and whiffs came on the fastball, all of which can be seen above. He typically sat 93-95 mph with those pitches and topped out at 96 on a whiff against Michael Toglia in the fourth inning.
Eight of the thirteen fastballs (including all six whiffs) featured above were of the high variety, proving just how well Waldichuk's primary pitch plays up in the zone. The movement on it toward his armside, as well, seemed to be a strength, giving him a solid pitch in the aforementioned northwest corridor, though he can pump it in the northeast too.
The called strikes and whiffs:
Looking for a pitch that might fall under the nasty category? This is your place.
Waldichuk has really taken to the "Whirly," the sweeping slider the Yankees are trying to make an organizational staple. For more on that specific pitch, we recommend reading Lindsey Adler's Whirly explainer for The Athletic. In Waldichuk's case, the New York development staff found that his original slider featured more depth than they'd hoped and tried getting him to move toward the Whirly, which features more horizontal break than vertical. It didn't take much convincing to get the southpaw on board.
"A bunch of guys from our staff were throwing it on video, and it moves like a wiffle ball," Waldichuk said.
As Adler notes about other Yankees in her piece, Waldichuk uses a two-seam grip to find that movement on his own version of the slider.
"It's almost like a cutter, but it moves like a traditional slider would," said the lefty. "It’s not super hard. It's probably in the low-to-mid 80s. It stays on a line like a cutter would, but it moves instead of, say, five inches, it moves like 20 inches."
The Yard Goats learned about the Whirly the hard way. Waldichuk noted that the increased movement has helped him throw the slider to the back foot of right-handed batters (i.e. the southeast), leading to some funky swings-and-misses. Three of his six strikeouts in this specific game came on the Whirly, including two swinging K's in the second inning against Aaron Schunk and Kyle Datres that might be worthy of the Pitching Ninja Twitter page. They're the second and third pitches in the reel above, respectively. The inning-ending slider to Datres, which started from the left side of the rubber and broke all the way to the batter's shoetops, seemed to be to Waldichuk's liking, based on his fist pump of a reaction.
True to Waldichuk's own scouting report, the four slider CSW's ranged from 82-84 mph.
The called strikes and whiffs:
If there's a pitch here that Waldichuk seems to still be finding, it's the deuce.
The left-hander was tinkering around with the curve for much of the spring, hoping to get something that would give a different look from his other breaking pitch. While that work continued, he was using the curve mostly in early counts, as something he could flip in for strike one to catch a hitter off-guard. In the final week of Spring Training, he was still fiddling with different looks until he went to an old standby, and something clicked.
"It used to to be my old slider grip," he said. "When they eventually taught me the new slider that we all throw, they just said [my old slider] had too much depth to be a slider. So we were going to keep that as a slurve and then add the slider. I started shifting up on [the ball], thinking I'll get more depth on it to separate it from that slider. Once I reverted back to the old grip, things started to get more comfortable."
Waldichuk claims that the new grip helped him increase the movement on his curveball threefold in that last week before joining Somerset.
"It helps me grip it firmer and get out in front more," he said. "Because I'm on the side of it, it still gets some sweep. But it also gets a lot of depth because I'm able to grip it a lot tighter."
Perhaps, the right-handed-heavy Hartford lineup kept this from being featured more in this specific outing. The two curveballs featured above -- both at an even 80 mph on the TV gun -- came within the first two pitches of the at-bat. But the vertical bend on both shows Waldichuk's improvement over his slurvier option of old.
The called strikes and whiffs:
Now, this is a pitch you'd expect to see a left-hander throw against righties, and in fact, all four of the changeups above were straight whiffs. Only the fastball got more swings-and-misses on the day in Waldichuk's outing in Hartford.
And if there's a southwest pitch in his arsenal, this is the one too. Waldichuk's cambios, which ranged from 81-83 mph, thrived best when it was diving outside and away from the flailing Yard Goats, and the Somerset starter wasn't afraid to use it when he needed a strike, as he did in 1-0 and 2-0 counts in the first and third innings, respectively.
"I feel like it's been a really good weapon against righties," Waldichuk said. "It dives a lot and kind of looks similar to the fastball with -- instead of ride and run -- run and drop."
Waldichuk added that he rarely throws the change to fellow lefties, but he uses it roughly 20 percent of the time against righties. It isn't particularly new. The grip above was actually taught to the Southern California native in seventh grade by a former coach's son who played ball at San Diego State University, and while Waldichuk never found himself using the pitch too often either in his high school or college days, he did store it in his back pocket for when he would need a deeper repertoire.
"I just kept this grip when I got to pro ball," he said. "I was throwing in a flat ground, and our old pitching coordinator Danny Borrell said, ‘Hey, you know you have a really good changeup, right?’ I was basically just fastball-slider then, so I had no idea."
In fact, MLB Pipeline graded out Waldichuk's change as a 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale -- equal to the slider. The breaking ball might have jumped up a tick or two in how well it plays, but the change still provides another above-average offering. It's a big reason why Double-A righties have batted only .161 against him to begin the 2022 season.