Does Pleasant Grove grad Michael Wacha resemble Adam Wainwright? KC Royals hope so

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Michael Wacha throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Michael Wacha throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

During pitcher Michael Wacha's seven seasons as a St. Louis Cardinal, it wasn't unusual for him to be confused with teammate, mentor and friend Adam Wainwright. And why not?

Not only is the Pleasant Grove graduate 6-foot-6 and Wainwright 6-7 but ...

"Hey, good-looking guys," Wacha said playfully during an interview with The Star in early March outside the Royals' spring training clubhouse in Surprise, Arizona.

It was one thing to have fans asking him for Wainwright's autograph. All the more telling of the resemblance, though, to have Wainwright's young daughters swarm him and grab him by a leg.

"'Oh, wait, you're not my dad,'" Wacha said, replaying one of the scenes. "'What's going on?'"

If Wacha had had his way a few years back, he might have been even more like Wainwright: a Cardinal institution over the duration of what became an 18-year, 200-win career.

But the Cardinals didn't share that sentiment. Especially after a series of injuries over time and what then-Cardinals manager Mike Shildt called the financial "math" of the moment that would likely cost the team a player he described as an "absolute gladiator" and "manager's dream," according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

So they let Wacha walk after the 2019 season, setting his career on an entirely different trajectory:

From would-be fixture to a nomad suddenly playing for his sixth team in six years as he is set to make his debut as a Royal Monday in Baltimore.

"I definitely did not see it going like this at all," said Wacha, who signed a two-year, $32 million contract with the Royals, including a $16 million player option for 2025. "But everyone's got different paths and different routes to their big-league careers.

"And mine just happened to go like this."

Through an odyssey that began with feeling "a little bit weird" donning a different uniform, first with the Mets and then on to Tampa Bay, Boston and San Diego before the Royals signed him in December, Wacha has learned to embrace the feeling of being like "the new kid in school" at every spring training.

It maybe becomes "a little bit more natural walking into a new clubhouse," he said, "and expecting the unexpected."

Perhaps also unexpected after three injury-riddled and wobbly years in which his cumulative ERA was over 5.00 and a combined record of 10-16 in his last season in St. Louis and year in New York and Tampa Bay:

Along his journey, Wacha has enjoyed a revival.

Over those last two seasons with the Red Sox and Padres, Wacha had a 25-6 record with a 3.27 ERA. The Royals got an up-close view of what that resurgence looked like last May in San Diego when Wacha took a no-hitter into the eighth inning and struck out a career-high 11 batters before Michael Massey broke it up with a single.

That was just the Royals' most recent impression of Wacha, who made his major-league debut against them on May 30, 2013, allowing just one run in seven innings in a bizarre game the Royals won 4-2 after a 4 hour 32 minute rain delay.

When Wacha joined the Cardinals that night, Wainwright was a few months from turning 32 and had a career record of 87-51.

As Wacha begins with the Royals, he is 32 with a career record of 88-54.

While Wacha's health history and Wainwright's remarkable ability to flourish later in his career make it hard to project Wacha could have similar success into his late 30s, the most critical point for the Royals is the right here-right now part of it for Kansas City.

And that's both about what he can do on the field and in the clubhouse as part of an opening day roster that featured 19 players who weren't with the Royals a year ago and an initial starting rotation that returns only Brady Singer from last season's launch.

Like Will Smith and others, the Royals wanted him for his winning pedigree and all that comes with it.

"He's really been exactly what we thought he would be ..." general manager and executive vice-president J.J. Picollo said last week. "He acts and thinks like a player who's been in the big leagues a long time."

In his own way with traits that resonated deeply with manager Matt Quatraro when he was a coach in Tampa during Wacha's season there.

"You can't help but kind of fall in love with the person, the consistency, the attitude ..." Quatraro said in Surprise a few weeks ago. "If I can extrapolate it out to what it meant to me as a person, these guys are all going to benefit a lot."

Asked to elaborate, Quatraro called Wacha the "consummate teammate" and offered his definition of what that entails: "For me, the best teammates I've ever been around as a player or a coach are the guys who care equally about your success as well as their own. And he exemplifies that."

Wacha provided some testimony shortly after he signed in how he handled asking Daniel Lynch IV if he might be willing to part with the No. 52 that Wacha had worn his entire major-league career ... save the worst season of his career with the Mets in 2020.

Lynch appreciated the tactful way Wacha approached it -- and all the more so when Wacha insisted on giving him the gift of a Fender guitar, valued in the thousands, in gratitude.

That set a tone that reverberated with Lynch and others during spring training. Wacha was accessible and approachable about everything, Lynch said, and eager to elaborate on his experiences when asked.

He also strove to mesh in instead of stand apart as someone of his achievements -- including 2015 All-Star and 2013 National League Championship Series -- might posture themselves.

"Getting that communication and camaraderie built early on," Wacha said, "I found is key."

Something he actually learned early on, too.

From his coaches in Texarkana, Texas, and at Texas A&M. And in the Cardinals organization from a number of veteran pitchers in particular, including Chris Carpenter, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook.

But no one more than Wainwright, with whom he maintains a close friendship and says he still learns from.

While Wacha also bears a facial resemblance to Kansas City icon Paul Rudd -- "another good-looking guy," he said, laughing -- it's what he has in common with and absorbed from Wainwright that the Royals hope will have meaningful impact ... along with his rejuvenated pitching.

About mentorship and leadership. About listening and sharing and passing it all down. About purpose and intent. About perseverance and contending with the highest of highs and lowest of lows. About all that can be said by example when somebody might be watching.

Wainwright "was just the guy in my first big-league spring training," Wacha said. "The guy that I watched ... Leading by example, he was literally who I learned that from. He did everything right. He was always working, always getting better. It was something that was really imprinted on me."

Now he's hoping to put a similar imprint on the Royals and Kansas City.

Upcoming Events