The keys to Jack Leiter's rise to The Show

April 16th, 2024

It’s time to officially add another member of the Leiter lineage to the ranks of Major League Baseball.

When Rangers skipper Bruce Bochy announced Tuesday morning that Jack Leiter, whom the club chose with the second overall pick in the 2021 Draft, would be making his big league debut Thursday in Detroit, it marked the latest checkpoint in a rapid turnaround for a hurler who has seen a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows since arriving in the pro ranks.

Leiter, who had a rocky 2023 campaign, has shown significant improvement over three starts for Triple-A Round Rock to begin the year. In a league notorious for its offensive output, the Rangers’ No. 8 prospect has shown a keen sense of having reined in his once erratic command; he has allowed just three walks across 14 1/3 innings for a rate of 1.9 BB/9, almost two-thirds less than his career mark of 5.3 BB/9. He’s been able to do so by having a strict focus on what’s directly in front of him.

“Every game is important,” Leiter said in late March. “Every pitch is important. So it doesn't matter where I'm pitching, it matters how I'm pitching. And that's what I'm going to do is focus on executing.”

It certainly helps his case that Leiter has been striking out batters in droves -- more than anyone else in the Minors, in fact. His 25 punchouts entering play Tuesday leads all levels, making his 25/3 K/BB ratio all the more impressive.

That Leiter, the son of former big leaguer, Al, nephew of Mark and cousin of Mark Jr., is getting an early opportunity to prove himself at the big league level is likely no surprise to those who listened to Bochy during spring camp, where the right-hander made a considerable impression on Texas' big league brass.

“He’s looked way more comfortable to me,” Bochy said. “I love his pace, the tempo that he has out there. And he’s throwing strikes. You can see he's different. He's a different pitcher this spring.

“I just really like how he's throwing the ball. I think he's in a good place right now mentally, talking to him. He's got a lot of confidence going in. The command, I think, is much improved.”

When it comes to Leiter’s arsenal, the bread and butter is his four-seam fastball, which he has thrown 54.9 percent of the time this season -- it is one of his two plus offerings (as graded by MLB Pipeline), after all. He logged 21 called strikes and whiffs with the pitch in his most recent start Friday against Triple-A Oklahoma City (Dodgers) with both his max velocity (98.2 mph) and average velocity (96.6) on his heater marking season highs.

The Rangers have ranked near the bottom-third of the Majors in fastballs thrown this season. On the more immediate horizon, Leiter will be tasked with facing a Tigers lineup Thursday that ranks right around league average in most categories against four-seamers to start 2024.

Still just 23 years old, Leiter’s stuff was tested immediately upon entering pro ball. He began his career in the Double-A Texas League, a significant jump even from the ranks of SEC baseball. Adapting to the rigors of the pro game -- along with carrying the pomp and investment of being the No. 2 overall selection in the Draft -- meant that the righty would face a few limitations as his career got underway, with the organization carefully monitoring his workload.

When he repeated Frisco last season and began to post a similar line, Leiter went back to the drawing board, spending most of July and August focusing on his mechanics while on the Development List. He had walked 43 batters across 65 1/3 innings in his first 15 starts of 2023, issuing three or more free passes in seven of those outings. Following his two stints on the Development List, he has walked nine batters across his past eight appearances, the last three of which have come at the Minors’ highest level this year.

Leiter creates a lot of extension with his athleticism, but his timing can get out of whack, leading him to open early and lose direction toward the plate, which hampers his command. The early returns indicate that his off-field work has helped iron out those kinks.

“In modern baseball, with all the data and analytics, there's a lot of numbers you can break down and dissect,” Leiter said in February. “Sometimes it's easy to forget how simple the game of baseball really is.”

“We have high expectations for him,” general manager Chris Young said of Leiter ahead of spring camp. “We’re really excited to see where this goes for Jack.”