Image credit: Matt Waldron #61 of the San Diego Padres pitches during the first inning of a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at PETCO Park on September 22, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO — In recent years, the knuckleball has gone the way of the northern white rhino and the Amur leopard.
It’s not extinct yet, but it’s depressingly close.
In that way, Matt Waldron is something of a conservationist. The Padres rookie righthander has brought the knuckleball back to MLB, and is proving it can have a place in the modern game.
Waldron, 26, has taken over a Padres rotation spot down the stretch and helped stabilize the unit after season-ending injuries to Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish. He’s not a traditional knuckleballer in the Tim Wakefield-ian sense – he has a low-90s fastball, mid-80s cutter and upper-70s slider and throws them all in addition to his knuckler. But he has upped his knuckleball usage considerably in his most recent starts, and his best outings have followed.
Waldron threw his knuckleball a season-high 34 times against the A’s on Sept. 16 and picked up his first career win with 5.1 solid innings. In his next start against the Cardinals, he threw his knuckler nearly one-third of the time and pitched 5.2 innings with one run allowed and a career-high nine strikeouts.
With his recent starts, Waldron is making the knuckleball cool again.
“Obviously I’m aware that nobody else throws it,” Waldron said. “I just treat it as a weapon of mine that I use.”
Only last decade, multiple knuckleballers still roamed MLB. R.A. Dickey famously rode his knuckleball to the 2012 National League Cy Young Award. Journeyman Steven Wright became an all-star in 2016 on the strength of his knuckler.
But both were retired by the end of the 2010s. Prior to Waldron, the only major leaguer to throw a knuckleball in the 2020s was righthander Mickey Jannis, who made one relief appearance for the Orioles in 2021.
Waldron, with his five starts and 35.1 innings this season, is the first major league starter to throw a knuckleball even semi-regularly since Dickey retired in 2017.
“Every time you see some of the swings and guys struggling with it, you’re wondering why there aren’t more knuckleball guys,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “It’s been a big pitch for him, especially here in the big leagues.”
Melvin’s question is one that is asked regularly: where have all the knuckleballers gone?
There are a few factors at play. For one, learning a knuckleball – and finding a catcher who can handle one – is notoriously difficult. Second, the game’s increasing emphasis on velocity and decreasing emphasis on durability from starting pitchers runs directly counter to knuckleballers’ strengths of throwing a high volume of pitches at lower velocities.
As modern pitching philosophies have increasingly centered around throwing maximum velocity fastballs at the top of the strike zone, Melvin further theorized the way the balls and strikes are being called is discouraging teams from developing knuckleball pitchers.
“The strike zone too, now, is probably more beneficial to guys that are throwing to the top of the zone with more velo,” Melvin said. “That’s moved around a little bit in my career. What I’d like to see is maybe a little bit of a lower zone and guys that, you know, pitch a little bit differently and can be out there a little bit longer. But that’s not where we are right now.”
Even those limitations, Waldron is showing a knuckleball can still be effective in the modern game.
Waldron threw 30 knuckleballs in 96 pitches in his latest start against the Cardinals. The Cardinals managed to put only three in play – a groundout, a popout and a home run by shortstop Masyn Winn on a floater Waldron left hanging. He threw half of his knuckleballs for strikes, an impressive number given the unpredictable nature of the pitch, and generated an array of called strikes, swinging strikes and foul balls where hitters barely got a piece after swinging wildly off balance.
While Waldron used his knuckleball as more of a setup pitch than a putaway pitch – only one of his nine strikeouts came on a knuckleball – it nonetheless put Cardinals hitters in a noticeably uncomfortable position.
“It’s a pretty big wrinkle,” Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar said. “We just try to treat it like a splitter, but knowing in the back of your mind that he’s got that, it’s just an outlier pitch that you don’t ever really see so it’s tough to prepare for that. And not to mention he can get it up to mid-90s. So yeah, I mean, it’s definitely a wrinkle for sure.”
Like champagne, penicillin and so many other wondrous innovations, Waldron’s knuckleball was borne out of happenstance.
Waldron had a standard repertoire when Cleveland drafted him in the 18th round in 2019 out of Nebraska. He had a 92-94 mph fastball, a fringy slider and a fringy changeup. The Padres acquired him as the player to be named later in the 2020 deadline trade that brought Mike Clevinger to San Diego, an afterthought in a blockbuster, nine-player deal.
The following spring training, Waldron was playing catch with fellow minor league righthander Chase Walter when he decided to throw a knuckleball just for fun.
“He’s really funny and I’m just messing with him like ‘Yo, check this out,’” Waldron said. “I just chucked it at him. He’s like 6-(foot)-7. I just like wanted to see him dance a little bit and like, just make light of it.”
A Padres development staffer saw Waldron throw the knuckleball and was intrigued. The team asked Waldron to throw it for the Rapsodo tracking system and liked what the analytics indicated. The Padres then had Waldron to throw it 10% of the time in a spring training game. After that, it was decided the knuckleball would become a permanent part of Waldron’s arsenal.
The addition altered Waldron’s career trajectory. In a matter of weeks, a pitch he threw as a joke to break up the doldrums of minor league camp transformed him from an organizational righthander into a pitcher with a legitimate path to the major leagues.
“To use it as a weapon,” Waldron said, “I never would have envisioned.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. In his first two starts at High-A Fort Wayne after incorporating the knuckleball, Waldron surrendered 11 hits and six runs (five earned) in 9.2 innings.
“I had to hash out the freakin’ ugly parts and just, like, learn to throw it,” Waldron said. “The first game was ugly. Really ugly.”
In time, he learned to control the famously temperamental pitch. He became one of the Midwest League’s best pitchers after his rocky start and earned a promotion to Double-A San Antonio at the all-star break. He continued to progress and earned a promotion to Triple-A El Paso the following year. While he struggled in the notoriously difficult pitching environments of the Pacific Coast League, he still showed enough to earn his first big league callup in June and be inserted into the Padres rotation at the end of August.
As much as the pitch itself, Waldron benefitted from the fact that most of the young players he faced in the minors had never seen a knuckleball. To young hitters, the pitch was virtually the equivalent of a floppy disk or dial-up internet – a relic from an earlier era they had little to no familiarity with.
The same is holding true in the major leagues, particularly against younger lineups like the A’s and Cardinals. Waldron’s knuckleball is presenting them a conundrum: How do you prepare for a pitch you’ve almost never seen?
“I don’t think you do,” Nootbaar, 25, said. “I think you try to hit the other stuff, honestly.”
Melvin has a firsthand appreciation for how difficult tracking a knuckleball can be. A 10-year big league catcher, he was on track for flawless defensive season with the Orioles in 1990.
That ended when he had to catch a knuckleballer.
“I went into the last weekend of the season with no passed balls and no errors,” Melvin said. “Daniel Boone came into the big leagues, a lefthanded knuckleballer for Baltimore, and in one evening I had a passed ball and catcher’s interference, so it ruined my season.”
If a true knuckleball revival is to occur, it will take time. Beyond Waldron being the only active pitcher with one in the majors, they are few and far between in the minors. Twins righthander Cory Lewis, who finished this year at High-A Cedar Rapids, is the lone even semi-prominent prospect to throw a knuckleball. Righthander KC Hunt, a nondrafted free agent signing by the Brewers this year out of Mississippi State, threw a knuckleball in high school but dropped it in college.
Beyond that, it’s slim pickings.
But Waldron is showing an opportunity exists to exploit modern hitters’ unfamiliarity, and resulting discomfort, with a knuckleball.
Just as many other unique specimens have come back from the brink of extinction, the knuckleball is back in the major leagues.
“Just make them think about it at all times,” Waldron said. “I don’t even know when I’m gonna throw up before the game. It just happens. And so sticking with that routine and not focusing on percentages, I’m just throwing it in all counts and seeing how it works out.”