On Friday, the Red Sox landed righthander Jacob Wallace — a Methuen High School and UConn product — as the player to be named from the Rockies in the deal that shipped outfielder Kevin Pillar to Colorado at the end of last month. When Ray Fagnant received a text from Red Sox GM Brian O’Halloran that the Sox had indeed landed Wallace, the team’s Northeast regional scouting supervisor was elated at how quickly a notion had come to fruition.
“I remember vividly telling him [before the draft], ‘I hope you pitch in the big leagues, and I hope it’s for us,’ ” Fagnant recalled by phone. “'If not, I hope you pitch in the big leagues, and you never know — we might get you one day.'”
Just 15 months after the Rockies made Wallace a third-round selection, that possibility became a reality, much to Fagnant’s delight.
As a junior at UConn, righthanded reliever Jacob Wallace was very much on the radar of the Red Sox entering the 2019 draft. Fagnant, who lives in Connecticut, had made the Methuen High School product a priority follow, an early-round consideration for the Sox entering the draft, and with good reason.
Wallace had shown an explosive fastball in the mid- to upper-90s at UConn as a sophomore, when he forged a 3.95 ERA in 43⅓ innings while striking out 13.1 batters per nine innings. His performance then reached a new level in the summer of 2018 on the Cape, where he logged 13⅔ scoreless innings while striking out 25 and walking five.
In December of Wallace’s junior year, Fagnant met with the righthander and was blown away by his demeanor and maturity — his vision of his strengths and weaknesses on the mound, the pitcher’s view of what it would take to reach and thrive in the big leagues, his priorities off the field.
The Red Sox have their scouts assign a quantitative grade to the overall makeup and background of players. Fagnant conferred one of his highest scores ever to Wallace.
“He’s just an exceptional human being,” Fagnant said by phone. “He’s the kind of pitcher you want at the back end of your bullpen, just the kind of person you want to compete given his character. He makes people around him better . . . Most importantly, there’s big stuff and when he is on the mound, he’s a competitor. That’s what stood out.”
UConn coach Jim Penders kept using Wallace in the highest-leverage situations imaginable — a bases-loaded entry with two outs in the eighth against a very strong Louisville team early in the 2019 season, in which Wallace entered, struck out the first hitter on three pitches, then cruised through a scoreless ninth for the save; inheriting and then stranding the tying run on third with a strikeout to kick off a four-out save against the University of South Florida in April that was followed one day later by another scoreless appearance.
As he watched the righthander — listed at 6- feet 1 inch and 190 pounds — firing 94-98-mile-per-hour comets that seemed to explode at the top of the strike zone while also employing a hard mid-80s slide with sharp downward break (Wallace also made infrequent use of a changeup that worked as an effective weapon in college), Fagnant conjured thoughts of another recent Red Sox reliever.
“He’s got that Craig Kimbrel, that low release point almost like he throws it uphill,” said Fagnant. “He got swings and misses with all his pitches in the strike zone, which I think has huge value.”
Wallace punctuated his year with a pair of exceptional performances in the NCAA regionals against Oklahoma State. With UConn facing elimination and the tying run on second with two outs in the seventh, Wallace entered and struck out all seven batters he faced. One day later, he went back out for 2⅔ innings and retired all eight batters he faced, striking out five.
“That was kind of the cherry on top, scouting him as much as I did and seeing him in the regionals. That was quite a final outing,” said Fagnant. “[But] it signaled that we might not get him.”
That’s the nature of scouting: A scout can track a player and turn in a glowing recommendation about him, but there’s no guarantee that his team will select him before someone else does so. Fagnant viewed Wallace as an excellent college closer, the type who might be considered by teams around the third round (the spot where the Sox took closer Durbin Feltman out of TCU one year earlier). And so, as the draft neared, Fagnant shared the thought with Wallace that even if the Sox didn’t end up drafting the righthander, there was always a chance of a reunion down the road.
Wallace made his pro debut in the short-season Northwest League last summer, forging a 1.29 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 21 innings. As the Red Sox discussed a trade with the Rockies for Pillar late last month, front-office members reached out to Fagnant a couple weeks ago to follow up on his glowing evaluations of the potential late-innings reliever.
“He’s got a chance to move really quickly,” Fagnant concluded.
And now, Wallace will have that chance as a member of the Red Sox organization.