SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The son of two-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion Al Leiter, Jack Leiter dominated in his lone full college season at Vanderbilt last spring. He no-hit South Carolina in his first Southeastern Conference start, tied for the NCAA Division I lead with 179 strikeouts in 110 innings and pitched the Commodores to within a victory of the College World Series title. Signed for a Rangers-record $7,922,000 as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 Draft, he'll make his pro debut this April in Double-A.
MLB Pipeline's Jim Callis recently spoke with Leiter at Rangers camp about the influence his father had in his life, his relationship with MLB Pipeline's No. 8 overall prospect Anthony Volpe and more.
Jim Callis: I've talked to your dad at MLB Network, and obviously he had a great career and I don't think he has any regrets, but he didn't get to have that college experience. I sensed he wanted you to go to college to have that college experience. Did he play much role in that decision? Or did he leave it up to you, give you his perspective but let you make the call?
Jack Leiter: He played a huge role, and my mom as well. They were both really big advocates for school since I was little and taking it seriously in the classroom, and that's kind of what I did all throughout elementary, middle and high school. And then it was pretty agreed upon between all of us that I don't really think there would have been a price to sway me away from Vanderbilt. That was kind of just what I had my mind set on. I didn't think about the Draft a single time, my whole senior year, just got to enjoy my last year of high school. I think that kind of eased my mind too, because I really do think that the years at Vanderbilt helped me mature on and off the field. They were really needed in order to come into the pro ball setting and feel prepared.
Callis: I'm sure you've been asked this a million times, but how nice is it to have a resource like your dad? He has done it all, All-Star teams, World Series, pitched forever in the big leagues. Any question you have about pitching or life as a pro, you've got a guy right there who can answer it all for you.
Leiter: It's a huge impact and a huge influence on me. He never really pushed even for me to be a baseball player and a pitcher, but then I sort of just fell in love with it. A lot of it came from kind of just a self-drive to continue to improve and then he was just a resource. He was never too pushy, one way or another -- "You need to do this, you need to do that." It was kind of on me. And when I have questions and when I struggle with something on the field or off it, he is always there to help. And that's been a huge influence on me.
Callis: You mentioned that early on in your high school career, you weren't even really thinking about pro ball. When did your stuff start to get better? I remember at the 2018 Under Armour All-America Game, you were a prospect, but more of a pitchability right-hander, good curveball, nobody's really talking about the fastball much.
Leiter: I would say that summer, I gained another level of confidence. Because the summer before that, I was not highly regarded on any of those websites and anything like that. Then I didn't think I was going to be invited to the Under Armour Game or Perfect Game or even the USA tryouts, Tournament of Stars. I didn't really expect any of that to happen. My teammate [at the Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J.], Anthony Volpe, he was getting invited to all those and I think guys were coming out kind of to see him. That junior-year season I, I sort of started to click and the velocity ticked up a little bit, the feel for my breaking balls was getting better throughout the season. And as more people were coming to watch him, they kind of got their eyes on me. I was lucky enough to get invited to those events and being in those events, making friends with the best guys around the country, future top prospects and big leaguers. That was really cool for me and for the confidence level. And then I would say that winter with Team USA, the 18U team, which was a really special team looking back. That was another cool experience getting to pitch in the gold-medal game in Panama against Panama. That was just another confidence booster. Going into my senior season, that's when my confidence on the mound got better.
Callis: It's funny because two years ago I was in Spring Training interviewing Anthony in Tampa, and you had made one or two appearances for Vanderbilt and he was pretty excited. Obviously, you're aware that he had as good a season as anybody did in the Minor Leagues last year. Do you guys stay in touch and do you keep an eye on what he's doing?
Leiter: Yeah, we do. I like to check in periodically and then when we're home, holiday breaks and things like that, to link up and just hang out. Last season, I was checking in almost every game to see how he did. It's really cool to have a former teammate who I played with for so long and became so close with get what he's deserved this whole time. People who have known him since he was little have always known that that was Anthony Volpe. It just recently got recognized by the whole world and I think that's awesome. And knowing him and his work ethic, he's going to continue to impress people.
Callis: You probably won't get to face him until you're both in the big leagues, which will be pretty cool. But if you were facing him today, who do you think wins the battle, Volpe versus Leiter? How would you pitch him?
Leiter: I've done it all because I've faced him so many times. During the pandemic, he was one of three or four hitters that was facing me. I would simulate four-inning outings because I wanted to kind of build up my innings log that year because I only had 15 before COVID hit. So I was throwing innings to him and he was hitting every three hitters. We've had tons of at-bats against each other, so I would definitely say he's gotten more and more comfortable. He's seen my pitches, so I probably have to pull out some stuff that I that I haven't before. Maybe some new stuff.
Callis: If you were ranking your pitches in order from best to worst, how would you line them up?
Leiter: I would put fastball No. 1, and then curveball/slider kind of 2A, 2B for me. I think they have different purposes but they're really effective for what they can be used for. And then the changeup has been coming along, and I've thrown a cutter in there every once in a while. That's something that's a fun pitch to mess around with. So I kind of keep that in my back pocket as a quasi-fifth pitch to have in there in case it's needed.
Callis: What's on your to do-list this year from a development standpoint? Obviously, you need to get some innings because you haven't done that yet. What are you looking to do with your various pitches or your delivery or your command and control?
Leiter: As a pitcher, I think you're always refining command, how your body moves down the mound in terms of efficiency. So that's something that I'm always kind of paying attention to and working to improve. And especially on the command side, I feel like every year since I started pitching seriously, about junior year of high school, it's just gotten incrementally a little bit better and it's nowhere near perfect. But that's the fun part about the game, there's always something to work on. I look forward to the good and the bad, because that's the way it's going be until I retire. So kind of just taking the positives from the bad outings and not getting too high from the good outings and staying somewhere in the middle. Part of that is going to be just continuing to work on all that stuff.
Callis: Fans always ask about comps. I had a scout last year say, maybe because it was the same school and you guys are similar size, Sonny Gray but with a deeper repertoire. Have you heard any good comps for yourself? Are there any you liked?
Leiter: Sonny Gray is a cool one and whenever it's any of the Vandy guys, I like that a lot. Walker Buehler. I mean, they have stuff that I'd love to have. That Sonny Gray sinker would be a cool one to add. I look at all these big league guys, I watch videos on them talking about their stuff and I watch them pitch and kind of try to take some stuff here and there. I've heard people say Sonny Gray. I've heard someone said Mike Mussina. It's not something that I put too much thought into. Again, that's sort of the outside perception and it's cool to hear that stuff, but it's really just about what I can do to improve.