With another gem, Hurston Waldrep making his case for Braves call-up

Braves 2023 first-round pick Hurston Waldrep pitches for the Double-A Mississippi Braves May 21, 2024 against the Chattanooga Lookouts at AT&T Field in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Photo by John Bradford/Chattanooga Lookouts)

Credit: John Bradford

Credit: John Bradford

Braves 2023 first-round pick Hurston Waldrep pitches for the Double-A Mississippi Braves May 21, 2024 against the Chattanooga Lookouts at AT&T Field in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Photo by John Bradford/Chattanooga Lookouts)

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee – Beyond the outfield fence, the Tennessee River meandered by. Signal Mountain rose in the distance. And on a hill of slightly lower elevation, Hurston Waldrep turned in another impressive audition for his dream job.

The Braves’ first-round pick out of Florida in 2023, Waldrep made it just a little bit harder for general manager Alex Anthopoulos to stash him in the minors Tuesday night, spinning another gem for the Double-A Mississippi Braves.

“I felt good,” Waldrep told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Definitely one of the better ones of the year. I went through a little rough patch there to start the year, so it feels good to get on a roll with a couple in a row.”

You may not know much about Waldrep, a right-handed starter selected with the No. 24 pick of last year’s draft. Raised a Braves fan growing up in Thomasville in South Georgia, Waldrep pitched the Gators to the College World Series title game last June before boarding the Braves’ minor-league express elevator. Starting at Single-A Augusta at the beginning of August, he was promoted to High-A Rome, Double-AA Mississippi and finally Triple-A Gwinnett within two months.

He finished the abbreviated season with a 1.53 ERA, a .179 opponent batting average and a 1.19 WHIP. He throws a fastball that Tuesday reached 96 miles per hour along with a slider and a splitter. The splitter, which Waldrep learned from a YouTube video while at Southern Miss (before transferring to Florida), is especially filthy.

“He’s got legit stuff,” a Major League scout (not with the Braves) told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Lookouts might attest. Tuesday, a week after holding Biloxi to one run in an eight-inning complete game with six hits, no walks and eight strikeouts, Waldrep was masterful again. In 6 1/3 innings, he held Chattanooga scoreless with four hits, one walk and eight strikeouts.

He recorded 58 strikes in 93 pitches. He had 18 swing-and-misses, mostly on the off-speed pitches, which he increasingly relied on as the game went on.

“The splitter’s there, but the slider’s a pretty good pitch as well,” Mississippi pitching coach Wes McGuire told the AJC before the game. “It’s hard and, kind of from where he throws from, it’s got a lot of movement down. It’s two really good non-fastballs. They’re both pretty special.”

A pitcher whose question mark has been his command – he averaged five walks per nine innings in his final season with the Gators – has a 0.71 ERA in his last four starts (25 1/3 innings) with 24 strikeouts against five walks.

‘I think the more that he pitches, he’s just going to get better and better,” Mississippi Braves manager Angel Flores told the AJC. “It’s exciting.”

It spoke well of Waldrep that he delivered the results in the 5-3 win despite his fastball being a little off.

“Some of the counts where I needed swing-and-misses and wasn’t getting there in attack counts (with the fastball), and so to be able to use the slider and splitter in attack counts really helped, really made the fastball look a lot better than it was, especially later in the game,” Waldrep said.

A lean figure at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, the right-handed Waldrep uncoils out of his motion, completing the delivery with a kick of his right leg across his body, reminiscent of Spencer Strider.

“Unbelievably hard worker,” McGuire said. “He really is focused and kind of knows what he’s trying to do and attacks it every day. He’s just a really hard worker.”

The big question, of course, is when and for what purpose Anthopoulos will bring him up. The GM hasn’t been afraid to bring up players directly from Double-A, namely center fielder Michael Harris II and former Braves infielder Vaughn Grissom in 2022.

Beyond the difficulty in finding a dependable fifth starter, it’s inevitable that injuries to the Braves’ pitching staff will happen over the course of this season. Both last year and in 2022, they used 29 pitchers (not counting position players) prior to the September call-up. Prior to the Braves’ Tuesday night game against the Cubs, the number was 19. A recent promotion from High-A Rome to Mississippi, Spencer Schwellenbach, is another possibility.

“(Getting called to the majors) is always in the back of a player’s mind, no matter who you are, no matter what organization you’re in,” Waldrep said.

Waldrep might not be there yet. Even as he dominated the Lookouts, he overthrew at times, leading to pitches wide of the plate or high of the zone. While he only walked one, he got himself into a number of three-ball counts, situations that are more easily escaped against the Lookouts than, say, the Phillies.

“There’s always something to work on,” Waldrep said. “I think that’s the beauty of this game – there’s always something to perfect or work on or execute.”

As he progresses, with the whiff-inducing slider and splitter, it’s easy to envision him as a useful reliever.

In the meantime, the Braves have to love what they have in Waldrep, ranked the No. 74 prospect in baseball by MLB.com. He is second with the Braves behind pitcher AJ Smith-Shawver (No. 58, at Gwinnett).

“He’s a kid that, eventually, we’re going to see him in Atlanta,” Flores said.

With more outings like Tuesday’s, the timeline will only accelerate.