Hurston Waldrep’s Freaky Splitter Is Coming! Beware! Beware!

Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Come with me, friends, and let’s talk about Hurston Waldrep. When the Braves took the former Florida Gator 24th overall on Sunday night, no less an authority than Eric Longenhagen called the pick “a huge coup.” As a college starter, Waldrep struggled to throw strikes, but he has the most eye-watering repertoire of any college pitcher in this draft, Paul Skenes excluded. Behold, Waldrep’s start against South Carolina in Game 2 of the Gainesville Super Regional.

As a South Carolina partisan, I couldn’t muster the energy to be upset at suffering a season-ending loss. Waldrep allowed three hits and struck out 13 over eight scoreless innings, and honestly the Gamecocks could’ve kept going up there and hacking until the following Tuesday afternoon and they still wouldn’t have scored off Waldrep. Every fan has seen their team lose games like that. It’s a humbling experience.

Waldrep can be so unhittable because he possesses skills that are relatively common in isolation (with one very important exception) but unusual in combination. And it’s hard to imagine professional hitters faring much better against him.

In his first three starts of the NCAA Tournament, Waldrep struck out 37 batters in 21 innings. (LSU knocked Waldrep out early in Game 2 of the final, but Florida gave the junior right-hander 24 runs of support, so the Gators prevailed anyway.) During Waldrep’s Omaha start against Oral Roberts (six innings, one run, 10 strikeouts), the Creighton baseball analytics team tweeted a summary of three Waldrep pitches: fastball, slider, and splitter.

The fastball and slider are useful, but these are vulgar tools, common among modern big league pitchers. They only interest me so much on their own. Waldrep can throw 97 mph, which would’ve gotten you burned as a witch in college ball 15 years ago, even in the SEC, but that’s the price of admission for a big league rotation spot these days.

In the era of spin rate, most people think of spin as a good thing. And usually it is. Spin stabilizes the movement of a projectile; one could make the argument that this phenomenon, in the form of Colonial riflemen at the Battle of Cowpens, led to American independence. By God, our country is founded on spin. And in a breaking ball, spin leads to movement. I shrugged off Waldrep’s slider just now, but 3,300 rpm is no small feat. That’s a good pitch.

But the attribute of Waldrep’s that interests me most is his splitter, which does not spin. When a projectile is not stabilized or directed by spin, it wobbles inconsistently from here to there, like a stricken bug, or an errant musketball.

Waldrep’s splitter, or split-change, or forkball, or whatever you want to call it, is a grotesque, hateful thing. It drops ferociously, because the very air is disgusted by it and will not hold it aloft any longer than necessary. When first I witnessed this pitch, I was enraptured and repulsed in equal measure — perhaps one led to the other — as its essence lingered in my sinuses like the aftertaste of a particularly pungent horseradish. College hitters swung and missed at Waldrep’s splitter more than they did Skenes’ slider this past season. It is a weapon.

In addition to the sheer ferocity of Waldrep’s splitter, it’s unusual to find a pitcher who can throw as hard as he does, and spin a breaking ball, and un-spin a changeup. Both of those spin numbers are outliers, highlighted because they’re out of the ordinary, but they’re outliers even for big leaguers.

This season, 42 major league pitchers have thrown a splitter or a changeup at 900 rpm or less, and 26 have thrown a breaking ball at 3,200 rpm or more. The only player to appear on both lists is Shohei Ohtani, because, well, I don’t know what I expected.

And this is not a regular thing, to be clear. Ohtani has thrown 1,620 pitches, of which one was a sweeper at over 3,200 rpm and six were splitters at under 900 rpm. Lance Brodzowski had the average spin rates for Waldrep’s best two pitches at closer to 2,300 rpm for the slider and 1,500 rpm for the splitter.

Even these more modest figures are highly unusual; there isn’t really a pitcher in the majors quite like him right now. I asked Eric for some examples of pitchers who have extreme high-spin breaking balls and extreme low-spin changeups or splitters: Off the top of his head, he gave me Tony Gonsolin, Scott McGough, and Alex Cobb, as well as Yu Darvish, if only because any discussion of unusual pitcher repertoires is bound to attract Darvish. (Eric also suggested Jose Contreras, which brought a smile to my face because we all love a reason to remember Jose Contreras.)

Of these, Cobb feels like the best role model for Waldrep, though he throws a sinker, as opposed to Waldrep’s four-seamer. McGough doesn’t throw his slider quite enough, and Gonsolin doesn’t throw as hard. But it’s a start.

So I decided to head over to Baseball Savant and go for a quick rummage. What are Waldrep’s defining qualities? Well, fastball velocity, low-spin split-change, high-spin breaking ball, and a balanced repertoire; none of his pitches is some vestigial show-me offering, he uses all of them.

Below is a list of pitchers who fit the following criteria: Average four-seam fastball velocity of 95 mph or more; a breaking ball with a spin rate of 2,300 rpm or more; a change-up, splitter, or forkball with an average spin rate of 1,500 rpm or less. And if the low-spin pitch in question is a splitter, it has to have an average velocity under 89 mph.

In the table below, I indicated the type of low-spin off-speed pitch and high-spin breaker, as well as which of the two got used least often.

Waldrep(ish) Pitchers
Pitcher Avg. FF Velo Low FS/CH Spin High BB Spin Lowest Pitch Usage%
A.J. Puk 95.8 1200 (Changeup) 2336 (Sweeper) Changeup (2.1%)
Chase Silseth 95.0 1057 (Splitter) 2722 (Slider) Splitter (13.3%)
Chris Martin 95.4 1463 (Splitter) 2498 (Slider) Slider (5.7%)
Félix Bautista 99.2 961 (Splitter) 2305 (Slider) Slider (4.1%)
George Kirby 95.8 833 (Splitter) 2375 (Slider) Splitter (1.8%)
Hunter Brown 96.0 1456 (Splitter) 2486 (Curve) Splitter (3.4%)
Jon Gray 95.5 1432 (Changeup) 2525 (Curve) Curve (6.4%)
Jordan Hicks 101.1 980 (Changeup) 2576 (Sweeper) Changeup (2.6%)
José Cisnero 95.8 1476 (Changeup) 2662 (Slider) Changeup (7.6%)
Josh Staumont 95.6 724 (Splitter) 2696 (Slider) Splitter (0.3%)
Julian Merryweather 97.6 1341 (Changeup) 2345 (Slider) Changeup (8.9%)
Kodai Senga 95.9 1086 (Forkball) 2602 (Sweeper) Sweeper (8.6%)
Logan Gilbert 95.4 887 (Splitter) 2303 (Curve) Splitter (14.4%)
Luis García 96.9 1207 (Splitter) 2486 (Slider) Splitter (6.2%)
Luis Medina 96.0 1472 (Changeup) 2346 (Curve) Changeup (9.3%)
Shohei Ohtani 97.0 1321 (Splitter) 2578 (Slider) Splitter (6.7%)
Taj Bradley 96.0 1440 (Changeup) 2351 (Curve) Changeup (11.7%)
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

I’ve included all 17 pitchers who popped up in the chart, but we can start ticking off the ones who don’t match quite easily. The big knock on Waldrep is his command, which makes him a grossly inappropriate comp for Kirby. Hicks and Bautista throw too hard (though the effect of Bautista’s splitter is quite reminiscent of Waldrep’s). Other pitchers barely use either their no-spin off-speed pitch or their breaking ball. Sisleth’s on this list, but he was only in the majors for about 10 minutes this season. You get the idea.

The two pitchers who stand out from this list as Waldrep-like are Gilbert and Senga. Even then, Gilbert is an imperfect pick because he’s something like four inches taller than Waldrep and has the sixth-lowest walk rate among qualified starters. But his repertoire is balanced; he throws his least-used pitch, his splitter, 14.4% of the time.

And Gilbert’s stuff, like Waldrep’s, has a lot of vertical movement. I have a strong personal aesthetic preference for vertical over horizontal movement — 12-to-6 curveballs, sharp diving sinkers and changeups, and so on. I still wake up some nights feeling pangs of sadness over Brandon Webb’s shoulder. That’s Waldrep, and that’s also Gilbert, despite their physical differences. Gilbert’s splitter is also a rotational void; averaging just 887 rpm, it’s one of the slowest-rotating pitches in the game right now.

Senga is a more obvious comp; if there’s a 6-foot-2 college pitcher who throws a freaky split-change that sends batters home sobbing like children from an unsettling interaction with a clown, the obvious big leaguer to compare him to is the pitcher who throws something called a “ghost fork.” Senga has also struggled to find the zone this year; he’s a third of an inning short of qualifying for the ERA title, but if he had recorded one more out before the break, he’d have the highest walk rate of any qualified starter.

Waldrep is more breaking ball-reliant than Senga, who throws a four-seamer and a cutter most of the time, but the Mets righty gets a 59.6% whiff rate on his forkball. With a pitch like that, who needs a breaking ball?

But all these caveats serve to drive home the original point: If Waldrep makes it to a major league rotation with his repertoire mostly intact, there won’t be a pitcher in the majors quite like him. That, as well as his unwholesome splitter, makes for a pretty exciting prospect.





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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sadtrombonemember
7 months ago

Kodai Senga offers hope in another way too: He’s been surprisingly successful despite walking far too many batters. He has the second highest walk rate among pitchers with at least 80 innings, and he’s been surprisingly successful–like, probably the only guy who walks this many batters and is better is Blake Snell. Waldrep is not going to be successful like George Kirby or Logan Gilbert, who don’t have huge strikeout rates but also don’t walk anyone. Waldrep is going to get by on stuff so crazy that the batter can’t figure out if it’s a ball or a strike, which is good because Waldrep won’t know most of the time either.

Travis Lmember
7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It’s pretty early to draw many conclusions from Senga, but it looks to me like he’s been a bit lucky. And his slight GB tendencies might help wipe out a few extra baserunners. I would hesitate to say much after < 100 IP though.