For players selected in the 2019 MLB Draft, the start of their professional careers has been tumultuous, to say the least. After joining their short-season or complex league teams for July and August, their first full professional season was canceled just after the start of Spring Training due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving them to work on their own, followed by an inconsistent 2021 season filled with COVID-19 protocols.
Between the fall of 2019 and the spring of 2021, players were getting work in wherever and however they could. Red Sox farmhand and former UConn reliever Jacob Wallace was throwing to a high school teammate that was also trying to take video, rather than to professional catchers with a plethora of resources.
“That was a trying time,” Wallace said. “I just really had to believe in what I was doing.”
Once he arrived at Spring Training in 2021, Wallace was only able to get off the mound three times and had to continue work through the regular season on a change to his arm path, started by the Colorado organization, that required him to speed his delivery and make him more athletic on the mound. As a result, the beginning of the 2021 season, his first with Boston after being traded as the player to be named later in an August 2020 swap, was a challenge with control and command.
After his August 1 outing for High-A Greenville against the Rome Braves in which he allowed three runs on two hits in one inning along with a walk and hit batter, Wallace’s ERA stood at 7.96 and opposing hitters had a .276 batting average against him. However, the changes started to fall into place over the final two months of the season.
The right-hander had 12 appearances from August 5 onward, throwing 17 innings. He surrendered just six hits and four runs, while walking six and striking out 33 hitters. That translates to a 2.12 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 17.5 strikeouts per nine innings, all elite numbers. With that run, he cut his 2021 ERA down by more than two full runs and reduced his batting average against down to .233.
The strong performances have continued early in 2022, coinciding with a promotion to Double-A Portland. Though these figures are inflated by a five-run outing on Friday against Somerset, the Yankees’ affiliate, Wallace has a 6.75 ERA and .222 batting average against through seven appearances. With that one outing removed, Those figures drop to 1.29 and .143, respectively.
“A few things clicked, but it took a little bit,” Wallace said. “It wasn’t like I had a whole other offseason to work on it, it was ‘Hey, I’m showing up to Spring Training and this is what I’m working with. We need to correct this, fix this, tweak this.’ Working with that arm path change was the root of it.
“We worked heavily on the athletic throwing program and just buying in to what they were teaching, everything worked out fine.”
According to SoxProspects.com, Wallace is the No. 34 prospect in the system, one of four pitchers in the Portland bullpen ranked by the site.
“It’s awesome,” Wallace said of being with that quality every day. “It just shows that if you work hard and have talent, you’re going to be where you belong. If I go in in the sixth, or whenever it may be, the guys going behind me are going to be lights out.”
Despite the difficult path, the Methuen native has been succeeding so far in the upper minors and has been the latest in a long line of UConn closers to make some noise in the minor leagues.
Each of the five Huskies that were given the closer role between 2015 and 2021 are currently in professional baseball and aside from Caleb Wurster, who is in his first professional season, each are at least in Double-A. Patrick Ruotolo, a 27th-round selection in 2016 by San Francisco, is getting his first taste of Triple-A ball this season.
Wallace is joined in the Double-A Eastern League by Colorado minor leaguer PJ Poulin and San Francisco arm John Russell, who were picked in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
“It’s really cool to be part of that [lineage],” Wallace said. “Being a UConn Husky in general is an honor and a privilege, but being in a line after those three guys [Ruotolo, Poulin, Russell], it’s been great to have those guys. I throw with Pat in the offseason and being able to pick his brain, it’s been great.”