Matt Waldron threw the first knuckleball the Major Leagues had seen for nearly two years this past June in a single start before being sent back down to Triple-A El Paso. The last knuckleball thrown at baseball’s highest level came off the fingertips of Mickey Jannis in 2021. This rare knuckleball sighting lit up headlines across the internet. And while the headlines were positive, most of them were dead wrong about one thing — Matt Waldron is not a knuckleballer.
I tuned into Waldron’s Major League debut with great interest. After all, I’m hoping for a resurgence of the pitch that had me fall in love with baseball as a boy sneaking down behind the backstop at Fenway Park. But my excitement was a bit dampened as I watched what would be a fairly impressive start by the young pitcher; 4.2 innings, 2 ER, and a few strikeouts.
The one thing that was missing — a true knuckleball.
Matt Waldron threw 13 “knuckleballs” out of his 62 pitches. Most of which were “spit on” by the hitter because they started low and ended even lower (there’s a reason for that which I’ll discuss later). He got a few foul balls on the change-of-pace and even one swing-and-miss on a nasty “knuckleball” darting away and off the plate from a lefty.
But he didn’t square any up. He didn’t have the catcher defending himself against the 80+ mph pitch. None of the balls got to the backstop and he didn’t throw enough to get a real rhythm. And he only threw the knuckleball ahead in the count after attacking with a low- to mid-90s fastball (two of which were hit for solo home runs) and sweeping slider.
Charlie Hough always taught me to throw it as hard as possible. “If you can throw it 90, then throw it 90. It’ll move just the same.” So, you can’t overthrow a real knuckleball in terms of speed. An 80 mph knuckleball should be just as difficult to catch as Phil Niekro’s 65 mph flutterball, but the catcher wasn’t having difficulty.
If Waldron truly squared his knuckleballs up, then the catcher would be defending his body from the pitch and a few would’ve rolled to the backstop. But he didn’t throw enough knuckleballs back-to-back to get a true feel for the pitch, and he was throwing them from an angle that would make it difficult.
His low three-quarter delivery and early pronation put a forward tumble on the pitch. This is ideal at this speed if you’re throwing a sort of “Forkle-ball” with tumbling action to get the ball to dive right at the plate. A lot of pitchers have used similar pitches in the low-80’s to carve out a career. See: Koji Euhara’s forkball.
But a real knuckleball at Waldron’s velocity would have a catcher looking like this:
Instead, due to the low arm angle and early pronation, Waldron’s knuckleball looks more like a tumble-forward forkball.
Waldron is only throwing the “forkle-ball” when ahead in the count and the catcher is so confident in his ability to handle the pitch that he’s wearing a traditional catcher’s mitt. He’s not throwing the pitch consistently enough to get a rhythm for the feel pitch. And he’s seemingly intentionally spinning the ball forward to get a dramatic dip at the plate like a forkball.
Simply put — he’s not a knuckleballer.
Watch clips of Hough, Niekro or Wakefield. The guys squatting behind the plate are special “knuckleball” catchers designated specifically to that pitcher because a real knuckleball is so hard to catch. They wear special mitts and you’ll see them defending their bodies when the knuckleball is squared up. And the knuckleball only gets harder to catch as the velocity goes up, so the Padres catcher should’ve have worn a few pitches during Waldron’s start. But he didn’t. In fact, he caught them all with a standard catcher’s mitt.
This isn’t to say Waldron is on the wrong path. He’s got a great arm and the ability to throw strikes with the forkle-ball. And time will tell, but perhaps he can turn that forkle-ball into a real weapon that earns him a spot on an MLB roster for years to come.
He’s just not a knuckleballer.