FORT WAYNE – The knuckleball has long confounded hitters, perplexed catchers, and intrigued fans who have enjoyed watching the slow, wobbly pitch crawl towards the plate. Despite its intrigue, it’s never been developed across baseball. At any given time throughout the game’s history, there have only been a handful of players who utilized the pitch. It’s considered a gimmick. Baseball has become obsessed with velocity and spin rate – the knuckleball is a slow pitch that doesn’t spin. It’s anathema in player development.
The pitch is also seen as a last resort – no one throws the knuckleball because it is their first choice. After a slew of arm injuries, R.A. Dickey learned the pitched in minors and ultimately resurrected his career in his late 30s and is the only true knuckleballer to win a Cy Young Award. The late Phil Niekro rode the trick pitch into Cooperstown. Charlie Hough made an All-Star team and won over 200 games.
Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield developed the pitch in the low minors, after realizing that he had almost no chance of making it to the big leagues as a first baseman in the Pirates’ organization.
“The knuckleball is the type of pitch that you use as your way out,” said Tim Wakefield in an archived interview in the 2012 documentary Knuckleball. “It’s a second chance-type pitch and I’m using it as my only-chance pitch to get to the big leagues and it’s paying off.”
Wakefield pitched 19 years in the big leagues, won 200 games, and is considered a Boston icon after winning two World Series titles with the formerly-cursed club.
For newly-promoted Missions pitcher Matt Waldron, the knuckleball isn’t a last resort; it could be the X-factor that carries him to the big leagues.
The 24-year-old Waldron started throwing a knuckleball earlier this season after tinkering with it in practice. It started as a joke of sorts but he threw it in a bullpen and it impressed enough that he started to use it in games.
“I’ve never really used it competitively [before this season],” said Waldron after a recent start with the TinCaps. “I always felt like it’s been something I had in my pocket and the more I have thrown it this year, I guess it’s more refined now. Using it and learning how to compete with it has been the biggest adjustment.”
The right-hander was a small piece of a very large trade last year. He was acquired by the Padres as part of the Mike Clevinger deal as the player to be named later. He came over to the Padres last November when the deal was finalized. The University of Nebraska product was more than just a throw-in; he was an intriguing arm who pitched well in his pro debut in 2019, seeing time in the Arizona League and the short-season New York Penn League.
“It’s very different, very unique,” said Waldron about the trade from Cleveland. “Something I have never been a part of. It just happens and I think it’s helped me a ton, it’s helped me mature and you get to make new connections while acknowledging what I have learned from [the] new organization. It’s a process but it’s been very good.”
Waldron’s knuckleball has helped him develop into one of the more intriguing starters that the Padres have in the minors and it’s not just because of a novelty act. The knuckleball has become a pitch that has allowed him to work deep into games.
“I think the last couple of outings, he’s gone seven innings and it’s been the same,” said TinCaps’ manager Anthony Contreras after his outing on July 9. “He starts to feel his fingers; it’s a whole transition right there. He starts to find out what these guys are trying to do at the plate and he starts mixing in all his other pitches. He’s a smart kid and he’s learning on the fly how to utilize his knuckleball along with mixing in his fastball and slider and he gets stronger as the game goes. I think he is starting to understand what he is trying to do as a pitcher and I think he is understanding what these hitters are trying to do against him.”
In his final three outings as a TinCap, Waldron completed seven innings twice and finished eight frames in his swansong in the High-A Central League. At the time of his promotion, Waldron led the league in innings pitched with 72.1 As the season has evolved, Waldron has thrown the knuckleball the majority of the time.
“Knowing that I am throwing about 80% knuckleballs is way less taxing on the arm so I can go deeper into games and have less soreness. Without a doubt, it’s helped me go longer.”
Waldron’s evolution as a knuckleball pitcher isn’t out of necessity because of an injury or because of a lack of stuff. He isn’t a soft-tosser looking for a trick to stay afloat. Waldron throws a fastball that sits in the low 90s and can reach 94 mph if needed. In his start on July 9, Waldron ended his outing by blowing a 93 mph fastball by a Lake County hitter for a strikeout. He looked his strongest in his final two innings, mixing in his low-80s slider. He throws two different knuckleballs – a harder version that touches 80mph and a slower one that has the velocity of a more traditional knuckler.
“It’s whatever [pitch] is most effective and if it’s the [knuckleball] – well I am not going to lose my fastball velocity by doing this. I am essentially going to make this pitch better as well as the other ones. It’s a similar process; you don’t have to change too much as far as delivery or arm action.”
Waldron has placed emphasis on his release point and arm speed by watching video intently in-between starts and he has been pleased with how similar the knuckleball arm action looks when compared to his other pitches.
“Rewatching the games has helped me realize that [my arm action] is very similar [to my other pitches]. Sometimes I feel like I am really slowing down out there but JJ [TinCaps pitching coach Jimmy Jones] or the catcher is telling me that it looks similar to your fastball and you aren’t slowing up too much. That has really helped validate [my concerns] and put that at ease.”
Waldron believes that the key to having success with the pitch is count leverage; throwing the unpredictable pitch for a strike to begin counts. The pitch is still new to Waldron but after one poor start in which he walked seven batters, he has consistently been able to locate the pitch for a strike.
“My dad mentioned to me that when I would struggle the most is when I was behind early and I didn’t have any count leverage. So it would be like 2-0 and they’d know a knuckleball was coming and they’d sit on it. And they’d know it was more down the middle because they knew I was trying to put it in the zone. So working ahead has helped me a ton.”
Throughout his career, Waldron has exhibited impeccable control; he walked four batters in 45 innings in 2019 and this year in Fort Wayne, his BB/9 of 2.36 was the seventh-lowest in the league. Waldron can throw his fastball anywhere in the zone for a strike and he feels that he is close to being able to do the same with both knuckleballs.
“[My confidence] is getting there. I would say in my [July 9] outing, I felt very comfortable with it and I do think hitters get over-aggressive with it; they have a hard time telling whether it’s going to be a strike or not so that helps too. I’m just working on making it more comfortable.”