The Sunday Read: As Jack Leiter’s fall semester comes to an end, his Texas Rangers career is just beginning
(AP photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Pitchers at Vanderbilt the past 15 years or so have been known for their ability to get out of jams.
David Price, Mike Minor, Sonny Gray, Walker Buehler and, among others, Jack Leiter have worked their magic on the mound in tight spots in big games.
Leiter is again facing a pretty difficult jam. His last final of the fall semester is scheduled for — get this — a Saturday at 7 p.m.
The same final will be given to another class two days earlier, but the professor is standing her ground and not giving Leiter a chance to take it early so he can make a family obligation.
“Not ideal,” he said.
Maybe not, but the exam will close the books on a 15-hour course load and allow Leiter to focus full time on his day job.
Leiter doubles as a right-handed pitcher in the Texas Rangers’ system and is viewed as a key piece to future playoff runs even though he hasn’t thrown a pitch since signing as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft.
Despite being being shut down after the draft and being largely in the same environment he had been in the previous two years, Leiter said he feels like professional ballplayer.
“But I would say it’s not going to be real until I actually put a uniform on and face a different color of uniform,” Leiter said last week during a Thanksgiving break from his studies. “I’m counting down the days until that happens, but I know it’s more about just taking it one day at a time and doing what I can right now to get better and put myself in a good position for next year.”
Leiter’s juggling act
He’s in class for three straight hours starting at 9:30 a.m. and has another three-hour block from 3-6 p.m. He has two classes apiece Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but nothing Friday.
The schedule has enough breaks between classes for him to train for 2022, following a program the Rangers created in conjunction with his strength coach from his prep days. The Rangers have visited Leiter, 21, multiple times this fall at Vanderbilt.
Leiter will hit the gym at different times throughout the week, frequently running into other former Vandy players who have gone pro, and do whatever his offseason program dictates.
Currently, he’s playing light catch. He built up throughout the fall, throwing bullpen sessions until his brief October appearance at the fall instructional league. He was no-throw for the next three weeks as he focused on gym work and arm care.
After throwing 110 innings this season at Vanderbilt, the Rangers had no intention of allowing their prized possession to make his pro debut. General manager Chris Young and Leiter devised a plan that would allow him to continue to work toward his degree without neglecting his arm.
It wasn’t too dissimilar from how Young continued his education at Princeton after he was drafted in 2000 by Pittsburgh. Leiter will have two semesters and an internship remaining after this semester.
“That was why as we negotiated with Jack, it was something that I’d lived and done and I knew it can be done,” Young said. “We knew we were going to shut him down. He wasn’t going to pitch, so it made perfect sense to allow him to go back to campus and work toward his degree.”
The next step is to begin ramping up again this week with the goal of throwing off a mound by the end of December, though just touch-and-feel bullpens. Then, Leiter will head to Arizona in mid-January to get a jump-start on spring training.
The Rangers haven’t said if Leiter will be invited to big-league camp, but an early arrival to the Surprise Recreation Campus will allow him to continue to get to know the staff and his new teammates.
That’s what Leiter missed most in choosing school over spending his summer doing his baseball in Arizona.
“Probably my favorite part about the game of baseball is the relationships you get to make,” Leiter said. “But in the short times that I’ve been in Texas and Arizona, I’ve been able to meet some of the Rangers guys, and, then, obviously, through power of social media I’ve been able to do so as well.”
The work ahead
The Rangers ran him through their motion-capture technology in their performance lab in Arizona and discovered a few areas that need to be addressed, namely with his off-speed pitches.
Leiter said he has been working on the shape of his slider, which has a tendency to sweep across the strike zone rather than spin sharply. He also knows he is susceptible to pulling down too hard with his glove during his delivery and needs to stay closed.
“Jack’s gifted in all aspects of pitching,” assistant general manager Ross Fenstermaker said. “But there are some areas for opportunity for Jack to continue to work on. I’m confident he will work on those and address them. There’s a lot of exciting ingredients there.”
Leiter’s best pitch is his four-seam fastball, which he pumps in the upper 90s and might be the best in the system. He also throws a curveball, the slider, a changeup and a two-seam fastball. Leiter is trying to get the changeup to where he can throw it in any count.
There aren’t glaring flaws, by any means. The Rangers believe Leiter would probably dominate the lower levels of the minors with what he has now, and they are curious to see how it would play against MLB hitters.
He will probably get a chance to face major-leaguers during spring training, either as a member of the camp roster or as a just-in-case player from minor-league camp. The most likely scenario is for Leiter to open the season at High A Hickory and at least advance to Double A Frisco.
The Rangers have said that they expect their competitive window to open in earnest in 2023, so there’s no need to fast-track Leiter in 2022.
“Jack’s an incredibly important part of our future,” Fenstermaker said. “We need to make sure that we do everything we can to do it right, and do what’s best for the player.”
Sold on Rangers’ future
Young explained in late July, at the news conference introducing Leiter at Globe Life Field, that he presented a clear look at where the franchise stood and at its plans for the future while wooing Leiter before the draft.
It isn’t pretty at the time, Young said, but the farm system is about to begin producing quality major-leaguers and there will be money to spend in the upcoming offseasons. Yes, offseasons plural.
Four months later, Leiter said that Young’s vision is coming together.
Leiter put his own eyes on some of the pitching prospects while at instructs — Ricky Vanasco, Owen White, TK Roby and Tim Brennan. Catcher Sam Huff and outfielder Aaron Zavala were among the position players Leiter saw.
He also knows who is available this offseason via free agency.
On top of that, Leiter believes the organization’s desire to win soon is genuine and that good coaches and executives are in place to lead that charge.
“In terms of where the organization’s at, I’m definitely excited about it from what they’ve told me and from what I’ve looked into,” Leiter said. “I’m also excited to see how this offseason goes. Obviously, I’m hoping they get some dudes. That would be cool to see.”
In theory, the players coming through the system and those the Rangers plan to sign will be playing behind Leiter in the not-too-distant future. But how far away is Leiter?
As Rangers officials always say about a prospect’s arrival, he’ll let them know.
“He’ll let us know,” Fenstermaker said.
Leiter said he wants to be ready to compete on Day 1 of spring training. However, he also knows there must be a balance between being prepared and not overdoing it too early.
His spring debut will be his first game since Game 2 of the College World Series on June 28.
Leiter said he wants to make his MLB debut as soon as possible.
The Rangers expect that it will come relatively soon.
“That’s what I want, and, obviously, that’s the goal,” Leiter said. “But for me, it’s really just not looking too far ahead, because that is all about outcomes when you think that far ahead.
“It’s more about the process and enjoying that, and really just taking it day by day and doing what I can. I know that if I do what I can and stay healthy and kind of do my thing, then it’ll come when the time is right.”
Jeff Wilson, firstname.lastname@example.org