Wainhouse came to UW as a two-way player but has pitched just 12/3 innings this season because he is so valuable as a hitter. “Joe’s hit the ball farther than any human being I’ve ever seen on a college baseball field, including Mark McGwire,” coach Lindsay Meggs says.
Washington’s Joe Wainhouse has turned into one of the elite sluggers in the Pac-12, a 6-foot-6, 255-pound, left-handed-hitting behemoth who is known to send balls soaring into Lake Washington.
But here’s the thing — as UW approaches the end of its regular season with a showdown series against Stanford beginning Thursday at Husky Stadium, and as the MLB draft nears next month, no one is still quite sure what Wainhouse is.
Oh, it’s clear he’s a force at the plate, for sure, hitting .311 with 13 homers and 49 RBI as the Huskies’ designated hitter. But as has been the case throughout Wainhouse’s well-traveled college career, he still considers himself a pitcher as well, despite the fact he has thrown in just two games this year for a total of 12/3 innings. He still takes his regular bullpen sessions, wanting to be ready just in case.
As Huskies coach Lindsay Meggs put it, “If Joe wasn’t having so much success at the plate, he’d be getting more opportunities on the mound. We’re certainly not saying he couldn’t help us there. We’re a little hesitant to rock the boat.”
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It’s hard to argue, considering that Wainhouse has been torrid down the stretch, hitting .375 with seven homers, 21 RBI and a .875 slugging percentage in 11 May games. Not bad for a guy who entered this season thinking he was going to be primarily a pitcher. The night before the season opener at Sacramento State, Wainhouse said to his roommate, incredulously, “ ‘I might hit tomorrow.’ It just started hitting me — I might actually play, hitting-wise.”
I asked the amiable Wainhouse what he considers himself 50 games into the season: a hitter or a pitcher?
“Who knows, honestly?” he replied. “We’ll see where it goes. I’m fine either way. I like both of them.”
Certainly, pitching is in Wainhouse’s blood. His dad, Dave, had a seven-year major-league career hurling for five clubs, including the Mariners for three games in 1993. Dave, who attended Mercer Island High School and Washington State before settling in Kent after his career ended, never pushed his son into baseball, but the romance bloomed naturally.
“Growing up around the game, and around the top of the game, just ingrained me early,’’ Joe said. “I loved it from the start.”
Growing up, Wainhouse did virtually everything but pitch — including play catcher, which was not easy for someone his size. He always had a penchant for hitting the ball a long way. Husky assistant coach Donegal Fergus, who watched Wainhouse hit as a youngster, says, “He’s the only kid who ever scared me in a cage. I thought he might hit one through the net at me. You could tell he had incredible bat speed and leverage.”
Stepping on the mound was a natural lure, but Wainhouse’s dad knew from experience the stress of pitching and made sure to protect his son’s developing arm.
“I coached him at a young age to keep other people from pitching him,” Dave Wainhouse said.
Joe was a hitting sensation at Kentridge High School, where he still holds several offensive records. But he pitched only minimally and was recruited by the University of Mississippi mainly as a first baseman. But after a year as a backup at Ole Miss, Wainhouse decided he wanted to become a two-way player and transferred to Bellevue College.
“I liked Oxford,” he said. “It’s a great spot, a fun school, with good people down there. It just didn’t fit right baseball wise.”
Wainhouse’s first call when he decided to transfer was to longtime Bellevue coach Mark Yoshino, who eagerly welcomed him. Shortly after he called Fergus, Washington’s hitting coach and recruiting coordinator who had coached with Dave Wainhouse at Seattle University and was close to the family.
“I told him I was going to Bellevue for that season, but UW is where I want to be after that,” Joe said.
And after Wainhouse’s strong season at Bellevue, in which he led the team with 11 homers, the feeling was mutual. Even though an arm injury had limited Wainhouse’s pitching opportunities, the Huskies were open to him as a two-way player.
“I remember saying to our pitching coach, ‘Why wouldn’t we try to get something out of Joe? He has arm strength on the mound, and I think I can help him offensively. He’s so big, with so much potential — why not give him a shot?’ ” Fergus recalled.
Arriving at UW last year, Wainhouse seemed to be heading toward more of a pitching focus, with a fastball in the mid-90s, until a lat injury curtailed his season. And this year, as he said, “The script completely flipped to just hitting.”
That’s partly because of mechanical changes necessitated by the lat injury that sapped some velocity, and partly because of team need. But mostly, it’s because Wainhouse never stopped bashing. Some of his homers have become legendary, such as an 11th-inning walkoff against UCLA that went over the Husky Ballpark batter’s eye in center and into the lake.
“When I played college at UCLA, Mark McGwire was at USC,” Meggs said. “I can remember back in the day him hitting some 500-footers against us. That was back when there were no bat restrictions. Joe’s hit the ball farther than any human being I’ve ever seen on a college baseball field, including Mark McGwire. It’s unbelievable how far the ball goes.’’
Wainhouse, who has already graduated with a degree in political science, has another year of UW eligibility because of the injury. But virtually everyone associated with the program expects him to sign with a team if he’s drafted. The question, of course, is whether scouts see him as a hitter or pitcher. He’s most likely to be a late-round selection.
“If you ask 30 pro scouts, you’d probably get 22 different answers of what they see in him,” Fergus said. “He’s really proving himself as not just a guy who can hit it a long way, but hit it a lot. Someone would be crazy not to give him a shot playing first base … and the mound is everyone’s backup plan.”
Dave Wainhouse says he just hopes his son gets an opportunity, one way or another. Joe says he’s not sweating it while the Huskies’ season hangs in the balance against third-ranked Stanford. Coming off a sweep of Utah last weekend, the Huskies are tied with UCLA for third in the Pac-12 at 18-9 (28-22 overall). That puts them in a favorable spot for an NCAA bid, considering no eligible 18-win Pac-12 team has been bypassed — but no team with their RPI of 71 has earned an at-large berth from the NCAA committee.
The Huskies have a route to the Pac-12 title if they sweep Stanford, and UCLA wins at least one game at Oregon State. No matter what happens on Thursday through Saturday, Wainhouse is likely to be in the middle of the action with his bat.
For now, anyway.