The Sunday Read: Jack Leiter’s professional debut was short, but his stuff lived up to the hype
FRISCO — The first three innings of Jack Leiter’s professional career went like this Saturday night at Riders Field:
A run, but still really good.
Leiter needed 61 pitches to record nine outs, seven of them via strikeout. He walked two, both times the first batter of an inning, and the only hit he allowed probably should have been caught.
The run definitely should not have scored.
But that’s baseball and there’s a lot of it ahead for the Texas Rangers’ top prospect, who was long gone by the time Double A Frisco hung on for an 8-7 victory over Arkansas.
Ultimately, wins and losses won’t make much of a difference in Leiter’s career path. Health and stuff are what will get him to the major leagues, probably next season.
After the first of around 20 starts this season, he’s doing just fine.
“Body-wise I felt good, and that’s always first and foremost, especially early in the season,” Leiter said. “Execution-wise definitely could have been better. I just threw away so many pitches. I got into bad counts, the fastball command was a little spotty, but, overall, just happy to get that first one out of the way.”
There was hoopla.
A crowd of 9,233 was on hand, and it seemed like 9,200 of them were packed around the bullpen as Leiter warmed up before the game.
Leiter’s family made the trip to watch him pitch in a meaningful game for the first time since last year’s College World Series in June.
Frisco is one of the most well-managed franchises in the minor leaguers, and Riders Field is one of the best venues. Leiter is going to be a marketing focal point as long as he’s there, and he seems completely on board with it.
He said the thing he will remember most about his debut isn’t the first strikeout (Cade Marlow, No. 17 Mariners prospect) or striking out the side in the second and third innings.
Leiter loved the environment.
“The fans were awesome,” he said. “Playing in front of that many people is always really cool, and, obviously, we’re lucky enough to play a game where people pay to come watch, and a lot of people. That was really cool, and they made it special.”
Leiter is pretty special on the mound, as would be expected from the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft.
While the outing matched the hype, he can be better.
“After the game when he came in, I said, ‘We’ve got room to work, don’t we?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, absolutely,’“ Frisco pitching coach Jeff Andrews said. “He’s ready to go to work. He’s not satisfied with what he does, by any stretch, which is nice to see.”
Andrews isn’t some 30-something product of the analytics era, though he understands all that stuff. He’s a former big-league pitching coach who is in his 37th season of minor-league coaching.
He’s seen a lot and doesn’t have time to BS anyone.
So when he says Leiter has all the tools, it’s not the company line.
“All the things that you want to do are there,” Andrews said.
Leiter wasn’t happy with how many pitches he threw. His fastball command was off and was part of the reason why 27 of his 61 pitches missed the strike zone.
He needs to be more efficient. Game management is on the development checklist.
“Let’s be a little bit more aggressive,” Andrews said. “They only got one hit. We need to take a few more chances in the strike zone early.
“You’ve got the stuff if you need to because you’re showing the stuff now that if things get hairy, you’ve got this in your pocket that you can adapt and throw it four out of six times, five out of seven times to get out of the inning.”
Leiter has told the Rangers that he traditionally doesn’t have his fastball command dialed in until the summer. That’s something that will also have to improve, but the effectiveness of Leiter’s secondary pitches will help him get away it.
He has revamped his slider in just the past few weeks. That pitch and his curveball were weapons Saturday, so much so that he didn’t need to even throw a changeup.
“The most I take away that probably surprised me the most was the ability of the curveball and slider to play in all counts,” Andrews said. “I haven’t seen him with that curveball probably the whole spring, as far as the ability to drop it in. When he’s in good rhythm the curveball plays really good and the curveball comes out very easily and is very strike-able.”
Leiter will make one more start as a 21-year-old before his April 21 birthday. He will pitch Saturdays, and he will build his pitch count every couple starts until the Rangers are comfortable with letting him run a little more.
His fastball velocity sat 93-94 in his last inning, in which he threw 25 pitches. That was down from earlier in the game, when Leiter zipped a couple heaters at 97.
Leiter threw 110 innings last season at Vanderbilt, so it would seem reasonable that he is capable of at least hitting that threshold if not surpassing it.
He could have gone deeper Saturday than just the three innings.
“I feel good, so whatever they want me to go I can go for,” he said.
Riders Field is about 30 minutes from Globe Life Field, where the Rangers have penciled Leiter into their rotation during future postseason runs. He’s a big part of the blueprint.
He knows what the expectations are at the club’s No. 1 prospect and a top-25 prospect in the game, yet he said he’s able to just focus on each start. He can’t get to the future without being in the present.
“I try to keep it all in focus. How do I get better? What can I do to help the Frisco RoughRiders win?” Leiter said. “I think there’s always just stuff to work on, and those bigger-picture thoughts are not for me to think.”