In the spring of 2021, it became clear that Vanderbilt righthander Jack Leiter would be the first pitcher taken in the draft that summer. Sure enough, Leiter was selected second overall by a Rangers club that was starved for pitching talent. I was on vacation with the family in New Orleans, and I might or might not have let out a very loud, expletive-laden cheer in a business-district parking garage when the news came down that Leiter would have a “T” on his cap for the foreseeable future. I’m pretty sure that most Rangers fans had a similar feeling of elation on the afternoon of July 11.
It was easy to envision the fireballer who is generously listed as 6-foot-1 and is the son of former big-league All-Star Al Leiter fronting the Rangers’ rotation sooner than later. With a fastball sitting in the upper 90s to go with a hellacious curveball, Leiter was the ace of a Vanderbilt team that reached the championship series of the College World Series in ’21. The redshirt freshman dominated, striking out 179 in 110 innings while boasting a 2.13 ERA.
(That rotation also featured Kumar Rocker, whom Texas selected third overall in the 2022 draft a year after Rocker was selected by–but did not agree to terms–with the New York Mets. Alas, the Vanderbilt teammates will have to wait a while before reuniting in the big leagues after Rocker underwent Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow.)
After signing a contract that included a $7.92 million bonus, Leiter was sent to Double-A Frisco to begin his professional career. He made his RoughRiders debut in 2022, and after allowing two runs in seven innings over his first two starts, he appeared to be everything the Rangers had hoped. But the next four months could only be described as a disappointment. Sure, he logged a few decent outings, and he was part of a Frisco team that claimed the Texas League Championship. But Leiter finished 2022 with a 3-10 record and a 5.54 ERA. Once the Rangers dished out $263 million on starting pitchers Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney, and Martin Perez, it became obvious that Leiter wouldn’t be coming to Arlington any time soon.
All Leiter could do was re-rack entering his second pro season. Once again, he began the season with Frisco after getting a big-league invite to spring training. And as was the case for the bulk of his 2022 campaign, he didn’t look great to start the season. Leiter lacked control with his fastball, issuing 14 walks in 20 innings over his first four starts. He showed some improvement in that department in his final April start, issuing one walk, but he was tagged for five runs in four innings in a loss to Amarillo. When the month ended, Leiter was 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA. Opponents hit .282 off of him with an OPS of .949. Less than two years after being a celebrated selection, his new priority was proving he belonged in a Double-A rotation.
Then Leiter flipped the switch. In May, we’ve finally seen glimpses of that ace potential. On May 5, he logged six scoreless innings at Midland by attacking with his fastball, yielding three hits, walking two, and fanning seven. The next time out he did not allow an earned run in five innings at home against Wichita. He issued just two free passes and struck out eight. He followed that up with some electric stuff in six innings against Amarillo. Although he gave up a three-run homer, Leiter struck out a career-high 10 and walked just one.
What was more noticeable than his plus velocity and a wicked curveball, which we hadn’t seen since his Vanderbilt days, was the swagger and joy he displayed on the mound. That might’ve been the happiest we’ve seen him in a Riders jersey.
So, what’s different? After Leiter’s May 17 start, I made my way up the Dallas North Tollway to speak with new pitching coach Jon Goebel. And while there have been noticeable changes in Leiter’s approach and mechanics, his mentality has laid the foundation for everything.
“You hear a lot of, man, that guy needs to pitch with confidence,” Goebel says. “Do you just make that confidence up out of nothing, or do you need to start finding some success in little areas? Like little Easter eggs here and there that would lead you to believe that there’s light at the end of the tunnel that allows you to start thinking about being more confident.”
Goebel adds that Leiter was doing a lot of things behind the scenes that don’t show up in the box score. “He wasn’t getting the immediate results,” he says, “but he was able to have the mental fortitude to know that the process was in a good place. Now that he’s had some good results, that kind of unlocks the further part of the puzzle of confidence. Now between starts he isn’t trying to fix four or five things.”
The few times I’ve spoken with Leiter in media scrum settings, he has come across as business-like, almost like he was making a conscious effort not to show too much personality. Because he comes from a family with a rich baseball pedigree, I assumed he learned early on how to say something to a reporter without saying much at all. Intensity can be a good thing for a young player, but so often last season and in the first part of this one, Leiter appeared to be wound tighter than most. According to Goebel, that perception isn’t wrong. But the reality might be evolving
“Jack takes his craft and career very seriously. And he has very high expectations for himself,” Goebel says. “With the recent success of his last couple of outings, it’s allowed him to let his guard down a little bit. He’s never going to let it all the way down because that’s what makes him a competitor. In the clubhouse, around his teammates, on his non-start days you can tell he has a greater sense of enjoyment around the game because he doesn’t feel like he’s beating his head into the wall. He has an elite-level work ethic. Work ethic is awesome, but sometimes being able to take a step back, zoom out, and take a broader scope helps. And he’s been able to do that of late.”
That’s evident in a change to Leiter’s repertoire. In that Wichita outing, he threw 18 curveballs to just six sliders, a reversal of the slider-heavy approach he used for much of the season. The hook put Leiter on the map at Vanderbilt. According to Goebel, returning to it is a sign of a pitcher taking the next step in his career.
“Last year what he struggled with was the adjustment from college to pro,” he says. “All of a sudden instead of 45 percent chase on that pitch, you get 20. So you’re getting less strikes and less chase because of a smaller zone. He’s realized the success of my curveball is not to make the pro guys chase it. Instead, throw it in the strike zone with conviction. Understanding he gets a little amount of damage and a lot of take strikes with it, so you can throw it in with confidence, knowing you don’t have to be perfect with it.”
Leiter has made another, subtler adjustment to his delivery. Instead of quickly powering through his windup, he is taking more time to raise his throwing hand and glove over his head before driving downhill. The pace matters as much as the mechanics.
“He’s learning that smooth is fast, and fast is too fast,” Goebel says. “He’s learning his best fastball is coming from more of a toned-down delivery. We use the Mozart-Metallica effect because he was very Metallica-Metallica before in his delivery.”
Mozart-Metallica cleaned up Leiter’s command issues with the fastball. Instead of falling behind in counts, he was throwing Strike 1 more often, to the tune of five walks to 25 strikeouts over 17 innings in a three-start stretch. “Now he’s getting pissed off by three-ball counts,” Goebel adds.
Which makes me believe that Leiter was plenty upset with his outing on Tuesday evening in Arkansas. He walked seven over four innings against the Travelers (although he was squeezed at times). Yet somehow he gave up just one run and one hit in a 2-1 road win. Leiter is touting a 1.71 ERA in May after posting that hefty 6.75 ERA in the five April starts.
Now we wait to see how Leiter responds in his next outing. Will he be able to tap into the joy we have seen in three starts this month? Or will we see a guy who struggles to control his fastball and doesn’t pitch deep into games?
Rarely does a baseball prospect have a straight arrow up, but at some point the Rangers need to see a long stretch of positive results from Leiter. I think it’s fair to say not reaching the Triple-A level this year would be deemed a disappointment. Hopefully the young man loads some “Requiem” and “Kill ’Em All” into his playlist heading into June. Or maybe just download Metallica’s S&M album from 1999 to find the right balance. Bam! Think we just solved that problem. Now, about that Ranger bullpen.