When the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Gavin Wallace in the 15th round of the amateur draft this year out of Fairfield University, something was immediately familiar about that pick. We quickly realized that the Pirates drafted Mike Wallace in the 30th round out of that same school in 2015, and then our suspicions were quickly proven correct. The Pirates drafted the younger brother of one of their minor league pitchers. It helps having a relative in pro ball, but as I soon found out from talking to Gavin Wallace, his family roots in pro ball go further back than his older brother.
Wallace first got a look at what pro ball was like when his older cousin Bobby Lanigan was drafted in the third round in 2008 by the Minnesota Twins. The Wallace family tree can sure grow some tall right-handed pitchers. Bobby Lanigan stood 6’4″, 220 pounds. Gavin is a 6’5″ righty, while his brother also stands 6’5″, giving them a nice pickup basketball team as well. Gavin is an athletic player, who starred in basketball during high school.
Gavin Wallace was 12 years old when his cousin was drafted and he would soon see him pitch as a pro in person. It gave him an early look at minor league life and it eventually helped him realize how hard it can be to get to the majors. His cousin made it briefly to Triple-A, but was done with baseball by the 2014 season. That was despite making it to Double-A in 2010 after just two seasons. Lanigan was injured during the end of the 2013 season and was a free agent going into the next year.
Wallace saw his quick rise through the system, got to experience the joy of someone he knows succeeding it the game, then saw just how tough minor league baseball can be for himself.
“Growing up with a cousin playing pro ball was something special,” Wallace said. “We would go to his games all the time in New Britain and I remember being part of the Lanigan Legion. I took for granted how quickly he made it to Double-A and Triple-A. Now that I’m in his shoes I recognize how difficult it is.”
Wallace used his cousin’s career as a learning experience. At the same time that Lanigan’s baseball career was ending, Gavin Wallace was trying to make a name for himself while pitching in high school.
“He’s definitely had a profound impact on my career,” he said. “It always pushes you when you see someone you know so well doing something that you aspire to do.”
So it’s no surprise that once it came time to choose a college, Wallace decided to follow in family footsteps. He went to Fairfield University, where his brother was headed into his junior season. They had previously played together in high school, so this was their first baseball reunion. Mike Wallace was coming off of a year in which he posted a 3.32 ERA in 86.2 innings. That earned him a spot on the All-MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) second team. The older Wallace would become the team ace in 2015, and he took his brother under his wing during his freshman year.
“My decision to go to Fairfield U was, in large part, to play with my brother again,” Gavin Wallace said. “Having him there to push me day in and day made the transition from high school to college much smoother.”
While Mike Wallace pitched his way to the pros in 2015, Gavin played a smaller role at Fairfield as a freshman. He broke out during his sophomore season in a bigger role, then put himself on the draft map in 2017. He was named to the All-MAAC first team and was Fairfield’s Male Athlete of the Year, among numerous awards and recognitions for his 2017 season. It was at that point that he realized he could be joining his brother yet again.
“I knew it was a possibility that I could get drafted by the Pirates, but I didn’t think it would happen.” Wallace said. “When I got selected by the Pirates I was pleasantly surprised to be able to potentially play with Mike yet again.”
They didn’t get to play together at any point in 2017 with the Pirates. Mike was with the West Virginia Power, while Gavin reported to Morgantown. Gavin went to the Fall Instructional League, but Mike wasn’t an invite this year. While they weren’t together at any time, having an older brother in pro ball still helped tremendously.
“Having him going through the system as a rookie two years prior allowed me to pick his brain about the little things the Pirates pride themselves in,” Wallace said. “Overall, he just makes every transition easier for me.”
The Transition to Pro Ball
Having his brother there helped, but talent obviously played a big role in Gavin Wallace’s smooth transition to pro ball. He made 13 starts and two relief appearances, posting a 2.65 ERA in 68 innings. He had an 0.96 WHIP, a .229 BAA and a 1.56 GO/AO ratio. Those are great stats, but three other numbers really stood out. He walked just five batters and didn’t hit a batter, so every batter was earning their bases off of him. Wallace also kept the opposition out of the home run column all season.
The one area where he didn’t excel was strikeouts, but a late season jump made his total a little more respectable. Wallace had 41 strikeouts in 68 innings, with 12 of those strikeouts coming in his last two games. The low strikeout total wasn’t really an issue because he was getting results by pounding the strike zone and posting low pitch counts by keeping the ball on the ground and pitching to contact.
That’s something that could be a concern for the future, although that’s where the late season jump comes in. Wallace noted that his slider got better as the season went along and things really came together with it at the end. It became a strikeout pitch for him and there is still room for improvement.
Wallace mixes that slider with a two-seam and four-seam fastball. He tops out around 94-95 MPH most games, sitting in the low-90s throughout his start. He commands both pitches well all around the zone, which allows him to set up his slider to use as a strikeout pitch. Wallace also throws a changeup, giving him a four-pitch mix.
At 6’5″, 210 pounds, Wallace has a frame with room to fill out still, which could help with future velocity. His fastball speed is already at a nice spot, but he worked during instructs to add more. The Pirates are usually hands off with draft picks right out of school, but once they get to the Instructional League, then they will make any necessary changes.
For Wallace, he went through some small mechanical adjustments designed to add velocity and also help his slider become more effective. He then put those changes into game situations last month, getting in about ten innings at Pirate City before camp broke for the year. His biggest learning experience while at Pirate City wasn’t on the physical side though.
“The biggest takeaway from Instructs is how much I learned on the mentality side of pitching,” Wallace said. “Having the ability to think positively and be ready mentally whenever your name gets called.”
Now in the off-season, Wallace returned to school so he can workout at the athletic center with some of his old teammates. He will come into next year as a starter for one of the lower level full-season teams and it’s possible he could have another reunion with his brother. If he can add some velocity while maintaining his strong command, Wallace will be working with a plus fastball. Along with his improving slider, the ability to keep the ball on the ground and a big frame built for workhorse type innings, Wallace has the potential to be a breakout prospect.
The only ingredient he was really missing was the strikeouts, but a late season push, along with some mechanical changes during Instructs, could have him on the right path.