After completing his degree, Leiter has a bigger goal in '24

February 16th, 2024

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- wanted to accomplish a few things this offseason. One of the biggest was finally finishing off his degree in human and organizational development from Vanderbilt, where he pitched two seasons in college.

With that out of the way -- “I’m good on education for now,” he joked -- Leiter’s biggest goal has shifted into further focus.

“From a grand scheme of things, the goal always is to pitch every fifth day for the big club and help them out and [win it all] again this year,” Leiter said. “So I’m doing whatever I can do to make that happen. I know that what that is is to keep it simple, one day at a time, trust in myself and let the results take care of themselves.”

As he completed his degree, Leiter -- the Rangers’ No. 5 prospect, per MLB Pipeline -- did his offseason workouts at Vanderbilt, as he does every year, hoping to return to the pitcher he knows he can be going into the 2024 season.

Fellow Vandy alums Curt Casali and Sonny Gray, among others, trained at the facility as well, giving Leiter a group of guys to lean on throughout the process of refining his mechanics and trusting in his stuff.

“In modern baseball, with all the data and analytics, there's a lot of numbers you can break down and dissect,” Leiter said. “Sometimes it's easy to forget how simple the game of baseball really is. This offseason was a good reminder of that, just spending time around some of those big league guys at Vanderbilt. I feel like my mindset has been simplified and there's a lot more trust involved.”

For a player drafted as high as Leiter was, his professional career hasn’t been smooth sailing. Tasked with an assignment to Double-A Frisco in his debut season in 2022, the right-hander posted a 5.54 ERA in 92 2/3 innings.

In 2023, he repeated Double-A and seemed to briefly right the ship after a 1.67 ERA with 33 strikeouts in five May starts. But Leiter would ultimately only post a 5.51 ERA in 15 starts before the Rangers decided to place him on the Development List.

Leiter was shut down for more than a month. At the time, general manager Chris Young said he and the player development staff felt it wouldn't be productive for Leiter to keep facing hitters in games once a week with mechanics that didn't allow him to get consistently positive results.

The shutdown ultimately yielded the positive results everybody craved.

Leiter posted a 3.31 ERA with only four walks, 25 strikeouts and a .186 opponent batting average in his final four starts for Frisco, and was rewarded with a last-minute promotion to Triple-A Round Rock, where he made one start.

“Obviously there’s ups and downs that come with any career path you choose to take and this one is no different,” Leiter said. “I would say I’m just handling the obstacles and realizing that it's a one day at a time mindset, one pitch at a time mindset. As long as you can look back each year and say, ‘I've made a lot of progress,’ then you can sleep at night. I definitely put the work in and at this point I've definitely moved on. I'm onto this year and I'm very excited about it.”

For Leiter, simplifying the process instead of striving for perfection each and every pitch has been the biggest lesson to go along with his mechanical tweaks and physical adjustments. All of those things have put him in the right mindset entering into big league camp.

"What we want Jack to do is come in here and be himself," manager Bruce Bochy said. "Just let his natural talent surface. We're not looking to him to change anything. It's more important for him to just go out there and compete and be himself. Sure, you're gonna get coaching, and you're gonna listen to things, but ultimately, it's going out there and doing what you do best, and that's pitch with your stuff and get the hitter out."

Even as external doubts have surfaced, the Rangers’ thoughts on Leiter haven’t changed since selecting him at No. 2 overall in the 2021 MLB Draft. Inside the organization, he has always been seen as a future ace.

Maybe for the first time, Leiter has a clear chance to be a big league contributor at some point this season, even as early as Opening Day if camp goes smoothly.

“We have high expectations for him,” said general manager Chris Young. “Last year, obviously, there were some ups and downs, but he finished very strong. All reports have been very positive in terms of the way he's throwing, the way the ball is coming out, the way the stuff is, and the way he's executed the mechanics. So we’re really excited to see where this goes for Jack.”