Just a few starts into his second-year freshman campaign, Vanderbilt righthander Jack Leiter is already the premier starting pitcher in college baseball.
Leiter, a 6-foot-1, 205-pounder, put together a fine freshman campaign before the 2020 season came to an end. He tallied a 1.92 ERA in 15.2 innings of work, along with 22 strikeouts and eight walks. Teams hit him at a .098 clip. He did not make an SEC start.
Coming into this season, we were sky high on Leiter’s overall stuff and his potential. But there were some naysayers out there. They said let’s tap the brakes until Leiter actually goes head-to-head with one of the premier lineups in the Southeastern Conference.
Well, Leiter rose to the occasion and showed unbridled potential in his first-ever SEC start against South Carolina. He made history. He struck out 16 batters in the complete game performance. And the only thing separating him from a no-hitter and a perfect game? A walk to the leadoff hitter in the first inning. It was that close.
Leiter did not slow down after the South Carolina start. If anything, his dominance continued at the same rate. A week later at Missouri, he struck out 10, walked two and once again didn’t allow a hit in seven innings of work. For anyone who watched the game, was there any doubt that he would’ve thrown a second straight no-hitter had Vandy head coach Tim Corbin not done the responsible thing and taken him out of the game after 101 pitches?
The Leit Show hit the road last weekend to Baton Rouge to face an LSU team with its back against the wall. And perhaps no single inning could encapsulate Leiter’s maturity, demeanor and overall stuff better than his first inning against LSU.
Riding a 16-inning no-hit streak in SEC play entering the game against LSU, the Tigers appeared to have Leiter potentially on the ropes in the first inning. The righty struck out talented LSU freshman Tre Morgan on a 97 mph heater to start the game, but the second hitter reached base via an error and the Tigers loaded the bases after a pair of walks.
Leiter went to work. He struck out Cade Doughty on a filthy slider for the second out, and he escaped the jam by striking out Cade Beloso on a 95 mph heater. There was no celebration or fist pumping. Leiter casually walked off the field like a true professional. After all, he expected that result. His no-hit streak reached 20 innings in that game before LSU finally got a hit to leadoff the fifth inning.
He’s that good, and his overall numbers just reinforce that feeling. For the season, Leiter has a 0.43 ERA in 42 innings, along with 71 strikeouts and 16 walks. Teams are hitting him at a ridiculously low .074 clip. His marks in the strikeout and OBA categories rank No. 1 in Division I Baseball.
“I think that’s where he kind of separates himself among a lot of people — just the maturity he has in everything that he does,” Corbin said. “Whether it’s in the actual classroom, or our classroom, he’s always locked in. He’s not one of those guys you ever see yawning — he’s always upright and he’s always on every word that you’re saying.
“He’s a Dean’s List type of student. You go into his locker and everything is very, very detailed,” he added. “He’s got a mental organization and maturity. I think that has a lot to do with the fact he grew up with three sisters, is a good brother and has a very intelligent mom with a great disposition about her. And they’ve certainly lived the baseball life with his dad.
“He’s just very settled into what he’s doing out there,” he added. “He’s got a very good routine and he’s just very organized when he gets to the ballpark. Jack is a baseball player first, then a pitcher. And I think Al [Leiter] should take some credit for that. He taught his kid how to pitch before he taught his kid how to throw. There’s definitely an aptitude for pitching that supersedes arm strength.”
Corbin recalled when the Commodores were recruiting Leiter early in his high school career. Though Leiter will comfortably sit in the 93-96 and up to 97 mph range with his fastball these days, that wasn’t always the case. He vividly remembers Jack having such incredible poise and command, but also sitting in the upper-80s with his fastball at times in high school career.
“When we committed him in high school, he definitely wasn’t some ultra-high velocity guy,” Corbin said. “He threw really, really well, but he wasn’t then what he is today. I’m not saying we made him throw hard at all, but we committed him on his instincts, maturity and projection.”
His dad, Al Leiter, also reflected on some old high school memories where his son just seemed to have “it” while on the mound.
He recalled a moment when Jack was taking part in USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars. Leiter was going against guys like Riley Greene, Bobby Witt and some others. And he more than held his own and made the team. Later that summer, Jack got the ball against Panama in the Pan Am Games with a crowd — as you might expect — that was boisterous and certainly home-team heavy.
Leiter dealt. He held his own yet again. He showed maturity beyond his years, just as he has with the Commodores through seven starts this spring.
“I kind of saw that early on with Jack — just his overall temperament,” Al Leiter said. “He’s facing guys like Witt and Greene, and then when they go down to the Pan Am games, they determined he was the one who was going to pitch in the Gold Medal game against host Panama. The crowd was crazy as can be, and he absolutely nailed it. They played really well, and just watching him, he was calm and cool. He’s got that cool presence about him with some strong inner aggression.
“The temperament has always been there with Jack. He’s much calmer and cooler than I was. I was a hair on fire get mad type of pitcher, and I was a little crazy out there at times. That probably played against me at times. For Jack, the mental part was there, it was all about just staying sound mechanically. He was always pretty sound, but in this sport, you’re always tweaking and trying to clean some things up. It was always interesting to think about how much bigger and stronger he’d get, because that would equate to velocity.”
Jack Leiter might already be the total package, but staying humble is in his DNA.
Al Leiter will never forget a moment he experienced early in his career during a stint with the New York Yankees.
He was a younger pitcher who was still enamored with the idea of playing with guys like Don Mattingly. But one day, Leiter was walking around the field before a game and noticed that Mattingly looked frustrated and bummed out. Sure, Mattingly wasn’t playing up to his personal standards at the time, but at the end of the day, Leiter said he just thought to himself “That’s Donny freakin’ Baseball, how could he possibly be bummed out?” Leiter said he looked at Mattingly all confused as to how he could be so disappointed.
Mattingly’s response not only stayed with Al for the remainder of his successful big league career, but also has been carried down to Jack, his son.
“I learned something very early when I got into the big league,” Al Leiter said. “Don Mattingly had been struggling, and I was a young, goofy left-handed pitcher at the time. I was kind of looking at him one day like why are you bummed, you’re Donny Baseball … he was just staring at his bat 45 minutes before a game.
“I couldn’t believe he was so bummed out, but at the end of the day, his level of play was not up to his standards. And he looked back at me — and I’ll never forget it — and said ‘Don’t ever forget that as good as the good is — the bad is never far behind.’
“That was the way the great players never got caught up in the ebbs and flows of the game of baseball. Never get too high or too low. Be consistent with your thoughts and behavior. While you’re experiencing success, you’re getting the job done and the results are great, you might have a day to enjoy it. You have to be ready for the next game. Even when I talk to guys in the big leagues right now, I let them know that pitching was not easy. I mean, I’ve stunk. I had a year in my career with an ERA over five. It’s not easy. It’s just how you keep plugging along that defines you. This game will constantly nip you if you go out each week and think you’re all that.”
Humble, but also meaning business, is the name of the game for Jack Leiter.
He’s anything but an “in your face” kind of pitcher, but he sets the tone from the start. Leiter wastes little time getting out to the mound between innings, and once on the mound, he’s the enforcer. If a hitter steps out of the box, he doesn’t take strolls around the mound. He stays on the mound, glove over his mouth and nose and is dialed into Vanderbilt catcher CJ Rodriguez.
On the mound, Leiter attacks hitters with quite an impressive arsenal. His fastball sat anywhere from 93-96 mph and up to 97 mph with almost immaculate command against LSU last weekend, while he had a great deal of success throwing the 83-86 mph slider to his glove side. Leiter did a particularly impressive job of locating that offering on the outside part of the plate against right-handed hitters. His changeup will range anywhere from 85-88 mph, and the deep breaking curveball was 78-80 mph. Leiter’s primary secondary offering in high school was the curveball, while the slider has typically been his go-to secondary offering while pitching for the Commodores. Leiter also showed what appeared to be a cutter against LSU, but it apparently is a slider with a little more velocity to it. It’s unintentional. From a command standpoint, Leiter is much more advanced than a normal college pitcher. Most of his misses are barely misses, and are easily corrected a pitch or two later. His ability to make adjustments on the fly is what also sets him apart from other, even premier arms, in baseball.
“As his parent, I’m so thrilled and proud of what he’s doing right now. I’m proud as hell,” Al Leiter said. “I always watch games. But I’m always looking at his outings in a different way than most. I’m looking at it as an analyst. I do enjoy watching what he’s doing — it’s pretty amazing. But when I watch Jack, I am thinking, ‘OK, what can he do to get better, and how can he execute various things a little better.’ With that said, the attention he is getting right now is very well deserved. He’s done a terrific job.
“With Jack, as with any pitcher, I’m really looking at a few things. Like, are you able to execute a quality pitch? Do you have two secondary pitches that you can expand appropriately? Do you know which hitters are hot, and who’s not? You know things like that. I always tell him and other pitchers to continue working on command, and to find the glove, and repeat it. In high school, his pitch was his curveball — almost a 12-6 curve — the consistency of that pitch needed to be tighter. The slider I really like, but it gets a little cutterish. I thought he threw some good changeups up at Oklahoma State, but it’s just kind of a pitch that I feel like he uses when it’s necessary.
“I thought his curveball was better than his slider in Baton Rouge last week. The quandary with breaking balls is always this — I always made sure that I had two distinct grips on my slider and curveball, respectively. My slider/cutter always crossed two seams, whereas I went with the horseshoe on the ball with the curveball. You don’t want either one to morph into the other.
“There are stepping stones and learning experiences as you move forward in your baseball life,” he concluded. “When you play in meaningful baseball games, they all collect, and then you just have to go out there and do it. You have to experience it, and then do it without consequence. There are a lot of really good arms out there, but it’s all about how it transcends to the point when it counts the most.”
Jack Leiter is a unique starting pitcher who draws a myriad of comparisons when it comes to former, successful big league arms.
He’s much different than his cohort in crime at Vanderbilt — fellow right-handed pitcher Kumar Rocker. While Rocker has an imposing 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame, Leiter isn’t physically imposing. He’s 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, and the 6-foot-1 might be a little generous. But he does have an athletic build with strong legs.
So, who is the best comp for Jack Leiter?
The first pitcher that comes to mind is former standout right-handed pitcher David Cone. Cone, as with Leiter, didn’t have height as an advantage — he was just 6-feet tall. He also was lighter than Leiter is — he was 180 pounds, whereas Leiter is 205 pounds. But the two have similar deliveries and approaches. Both pitchers have a quick, low angle, release that allows their fastballs to explode on hitters.
“I love David — he’s a good friend of mine and we worked together at the YES Network. They’re very, very similar,” Al Leiter said. “Coney eventually used his split finger more as he got older and he had a variety of arm angles. Jack is a little taller than Cone, but I like that comp. I think that’s a pretty fair comp.”
Scouts have compared Leiter to former Astros star right-handed pitcher Roy Oswalt, former star and current Auburn pitching coach Tim Hudson and former Vanderbilt star right-handed pitcher Sonny Gray.
“I do certainly see some similarities with Sonny Gray, especially in terms of stature,” Corbin said. “Jack is one of those pitchers where I’m not sure there are a lot of guys to compare him to. I see some Tom Seaver in him with his size and sturdiness, but the delivery isn’t Seaver. Jack just has such great extension and leverage.
“You just think about those guys who had swing and miss fastballs, you’re talking about guys like Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling and so on,” he added. “Jack’s ball really explodes at the plate and that allows his fastball to really play up. It plays up because he has great extension to the plate.”
Leiter will have his chance to write his own story at the big league level, probably sooner rather than later. But for now, he continues on as arguably college baseball’s premier arm, and as a pitcher who hopes to lead Vanderbilt to its third national championship in a couple of months.
We’re not surprised to see Leiter having a wealth of success. But to be this dominant so fast? He’s truly one of a kind.
But as always the case in the Leiter household, he must stay humble. The rest will take care of itself.