Waldron proving he's more than a knuckleballer

June 13th, 2024

This story was excerpted from AJ Cassavell’s Padres Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SAN DIEGO -- gets it. He’s famous because he throws a knuckleball.

On Wednesday, for instance, after the Padres’ walk-off win, Waldron returned to the clubhouse to a buzzing cell phone. Everyone wanted to let him know that Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was trying to emulate him.

Mahomes had reposted a video on X, in which he’s throwing a football with a pitching windup, saying, “I’m trying to learn the knuckleball the Waldron dude from the Padres throws.” Needless to say, it was a pretty surreal moment for Waldron, a Chiefs fan himself.

“It's kind of crazy,” Waldron said. “Like I'm living in a different universe.”

But to be clear: Waldron is so much more than just a knuckleball novelty act.

Over the past month, as San Diego’s rotation has begun to show cracks with Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove on the injured list, Waldron has emerged as a stabilizing force. A fringe fifth starter when camp broke, Waldron has posted a 1.78 ERA and a 2.07 FIP across his last six starts. He has struck out 39 and walked only eight in those 35 1/3 innings, while opponents have posted a .510 OPS against him in that span.

Sure, he's done so with his knuckleball as his most prevalent offering. But Waldron is also not your traditional knuckleballer in the mold of, say, R.A. Dickey, who threw the pitch almost exclusively. Waldron throws four other pitches alongside his knuckleball. Those pitches all play off each other. His 90 mph fastball, for instance, induces swings that make it look more like 100 mph, if hitters are waiting on the knuckler.

And yet, almost every time Waldron receives recognition, it's because of his knuckleball. Does that ever get … tiresome? I asked him that question earlier this week, before his Mahomes shoutout.

"I better watch what I say," Waldron said, aware of his standing because of the pitch. "But I feel like the term ‘knuckleballer’ is strictly someone who only grips the ball like that. Do I do that well? I think I can. So I understand. I throw it more than anything else. ... But I feel like I also know how to pitch and execute on other things."

It took Waldron time to fully grasp his niche celebrity status. After all, this was never really about the knuckleball. He’s a 27-year-old rookie trying to stick in the big leagues. If that meant using the knuckleball … great. If it meant scrapping the knuckleball … also great.

Fortunately for the rest of the baseball world, the Padres were emphatically Team Knuckleball.

"Pitching is about unpredictability,” said pitching coach Ruben Niebla, “and he has the elite pitch for unpredictability."

Waldron simply needed to learn to trust that pitch. Even if it seemed beyond his control at times. That’s the point of a knuckleball, after all. If Waldron doesn’t know which direction it’ll dart or dip when it leaves his hand, neither does the hitter.

Every so often, that means a knuckleball will drift directly into a hitter’s sweet spot. But more often than not, it keeps the hitter completely off-balance -- especially when he follows it with a well-placed fastball. Niebla recalled a conversation he and Waldron had last month in Atlanta, in which Niebla hoped to impart upon Waldron how special the knuckleball could be.

“Every kid that plays MLB: The Show wants to use Matt Waldron's knuckleball,” Niebla recalled telling him. “Every kid wants to use it. You've got to really understand the value of this pitch.”

Waldron began throwing the pitch as a kid, mostly because he and his twin brother also liked using knuckleballers in videogames. He toyed with it for years before San Diego acquired him from Cleveland on Nov. 8, 2020, as the player to be named in the Mike Clevinger deal.

The Padres asked him to start throwing it in games -- and ever since, it’s been a trial-and-error process to find the ideal usage rate. At various points in the Minors, Waldron was asked to throw the pitch 100 percent of the time. Or 80 percent of the time. Or 10 percent of the time. They were searching for a sweet spot.

Now? The Padres set a start-by-start baseline at about 35 percent. That number can increase, depending on the way opposing hitters are reacting to the pitch. Still, Niebla makes it clear: “He has Major League quality pitches all the way around.”

Waldron has excellent command with his fastball. Opponents have a .156 expected batting average against his sweeper.

The biggest key to Waldron’s recent success, Niebla says, has been his unpredictability. He’s now throwing knuckleballs in 2-0 and 3-1 counts. He’s throwing knuckleballs with runners on third base. Risky -- but those are worthwhile risks if Waldron keeps hitters guessing and flailing.

As for Waldron’s status as a novelty act, he’s come to appreciate his unique place in the sport’s landscape. Sure, Waldron sees himself as more than merely “the knuckleballer.” But baseball is a better place for having a knuckleballer in it. And Waldron understands that, too.

“I do love baseball, and I do love the little stuff that goes with it,” Waldron said. “I think my pitch is one of those weird things. It's not something you see a lot. So getting that attention and just maybe shifting the game a little bit to being a little more creative -- that’s what I think I've enjoyed.”