Hurston Waldrep’s First MLB Start Was a Land of Contrasts

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Hurston Waldrep is one of my favorite pitchers in the minor leagues. Or rather, he was, because the Braves called him up this weekend and gave him his major league debut on Sunday. Waldrep was the no. 24 overall pick in the draft last year, and I was by no means alone in considering that selection a steal for Atlanta.

A year ago this weekend, Waldrep was pitching the University of Florida to the College World Series; on Sunday, his opponent, the Washington Nationals, was somewhat more challenging. Waldrep’s line in his debut ended up being extremely ugly: 3 2/3 innings, four hits, four walks, only one strikeout, and seven earned runs allowed. Atlanta lost the game 8-5, and Waldrep got charged with the decision, leaving him with a career record of 0-1 and an ERA of 17.18.

Waldrep’s first big league start ended in disaster, but up until the point where it all went wrong, the rookie showed incredible promise. So let’s look a little deeper, because amid the pile of runs, you can see why I’m still so high on Waldrep, and why he could end up being immensely important to the Braves later this year.

Let’s start with this: Waldrep got 10 outs from his first 10 batters faced. The Nationals did have a couple batters reach on a walk and an error by Matt Olson, but those runners were erased on a caught stealing and a double play, respectively. It took Waldrep all of 28 pitches to get through the order the first time. He then retired the first batter of the fourth inning, CJ Abrams, on soft fly to left.

There was still a zero on the board when Waldrep got his last out of the day, the second out of the bottom of the fourth inning. Then it all came undone, but I’ll get to that later.

With a young right-handed pitcher on the mound, Nationals manager Dave Martinez stacked his lineup with opposite-handed hitters: five lefties, a switch hitter, and only three righties. And to be honest, he was doing Waldrep a favor, because the reason I’m so excited about this guy is his splitter. I spilled buckets of purple ink about this pitch when he got drafted, because it was my favorite pitch in the class. (In a class that included Paul Skenes, it bears repeating.) Waldrep’s splitter is a tumbling mid-80s offering with an exoskeleton made of lead and a soul made of phosgene.

In his minor league appearances where such numbers are available, Waldrep’s splitter averaged 85.2 mph with 7.8 inches of arm-side movement and a spin rate of only 695 rpm. Among big leaguers in 2024, only Logan Gilbert and Tylor Megill have slower-spinning splitters; this pitch wobbles like a knuckleball and drops like an anvil. The first one Waldrep threw came in at 640 rpm; one of them got down to 578.

Waldrep threw 34 total pitches to the first 10 batters he faced; 14 of those were right-on-left splitters. Of those, four were taken for balls. The other 10 included four whiffs, three foul balls, a called strike, and two popouts.

Waldrep threw the splitter all over the place, but the most impressive at-bat of the day, to me, was this second-inning confrontation with Eddie Rosario. Strikes two and three were superbly located splitters down and in, sliding back over the inside corner. Over the course of the whole afternoon, Waldrep got seven swings and misses; six of them were on splitters, and five of those were on pitches within the strike zone.

Against righties, Waldrep threw fastballs and sliders. The slider is a downward-breaking pitch in a similar velocity band to the splitter, but with slight glove-side movement. (He threw one that backed up and went completely vertical, and Statcast initially classified it as a splitter.) The fastball touched 98 mph but mostly sat between 94 and 96, and despite that velocity it’s most effective due to the fear of Waldrep pulling the rug out with one of his secondaries.

Lane Thomas had no trouble with the rookie, with a five-pitch walk in the first and a line drive single with one out in the fourth. Jesse Winker followed Thomas’ single by working a walk; he kept himself alive by just brushing off a 2-2 splitter in the zone that could well have been strike three. Next was Rosario, who hit a medium-depth fly ball, and that was Waldrep’s last out of the afternoon.

That was four batters into the second trip through Washington’s order; Waldrep was lifted at the end of that circuit of the lineup card. And while he deserved some of the lumps he took, I’m willing to make limited excuses for the Braves’ debutant.

First of all, he got bit by the BABIP monster. Luis García Jr. drove Thomas in by flicking a slider off the bottom rail of the strike zone for a 69.8 mph single. Two batters later, Joey Gallo got a splitter on the outer half of the plate and flopped it over to third base for a 58.1 mph single against the shift. Furthermore, three of the runs charged to Waldrep came after he left the game: Aaron Bummer inherited a bases-loaded, two-out situation and allowed Abrams to clear the bases on the very first pitch.

With all that said, Waldrep basically lost his control after he retired Rosario. He walked Nick Senzel and Jacob Young without getting anywhere near the zone, and the single to García — unlucky as the placement of the ball may have been — came after Waldrep fell behind in the count 2-0. And now feels like a good time to mention Keibert Ruiz’s three-run homer in the fourth.

When Waldrep is 80 years old, sitting on the porch swing at his oceanfront home in Tennessee after the sea levels rise, bouncing his beloved grandson on his knee, he’s probably not going to tell stories of the time Grandpop faced down the mighty Keibert Ruiz. The Nationals catcher has had a brutal start to the season, and even with that home run, he has a batting average of just .202 on the year.

But this guy hit 18 home runs last season. If you throw him a fastball middle-in, even at 96 mph, there’s a real risk he’ll hit it out. Waldrep clearly wanted that pitch back the instant it left his hand.

But the life of a rookie pitcher is all about learning. And we saw the whole Waldrep experience in his debut: Plus velocity and an unholy splitter, but a fastball that he really needs to locate and a slider that he really needs to bury if he’s going to get big league hitters out regularly.

By failing to get out of the fourth inning unscathed, Waldrep squandered a rare opportunity for the Braves to make up ground on the Phillies, who sit nine games up in the NL East race. Despite the divisional deficit, Atlanta does have a huge cushion to the teams behind it in the wild card standings: four games on San Diego and another half-game to the gaggle of mediocrity that follows. Considering this, I’d be astonished if the Braves ended up in any position other than the one they currently occupy. Even after getting steamrolled by the Nats, they’re clearly a step ahead of their wild card rivals. But nine games is a huge gap to overhaul in the race for the NL East title, especially with the Braves being down their two best players for the season, reigning NL MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. and right-hander Spencer Strider. It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely enough that if it happens, we will cover the comeback extensively, I promise.

So for the next three and a half months, the most productive thing the Braves can do is shore up their starting rotation for the Wild Card series, and then yet another 1-vs.-4 NLDS matchup against the Phillies, though with their respective seedings flipped. Starting pitching was the difference in that matchup each of the past two seasons, and as great as Chris Sale has been this season, he’s now merely offsetting (at best) the loss of Strider. The next three months are an opportunity to train and vet Atlanta’s surfeit of talented young pitchers: Spencer Schwellenbach, AJ Smith-Shawver (once he comes off the IL), and most recently Waldrep.

In the latter case, the raw material is there for a potential breakout star in October. Waldrep has until then to figure the rest out.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Cam78
10 days ago

Right now, he’s a one TTO pitcher, but he plays for a team that doesn’t believe in such things when you “start” the game. He’ll probably be the same come October. It’ll be up to the staff to use him correctly.

TKDCmember
10 days ago
Reply to  Cam78

Well, hopefully the team doesn’t make that determination based on one start. Does he have similar splits in his minor league starts? And how much can that possibly tell you considering for most of the season they’ve prioritized him working on specific pitches rather than sequencing them? But go off on how the team that’s won six straight division titles doesn’t know what they’re doing.

vslykemember
10 days ago
Reply to  Cam78

The Braves used multiple openers in the 2021 World Series