NASHVILLE, Tenn. — How does Jack Leiter do it?
How does one of the top prospects in all of baseball, the son of a former Major League Baseball star, keep level-headed? Stay grounded? Act as though not everyone in the ballpark knows who he is?
“I guess it sounds cliché, but it’s really true, I don’t really think about all of that stuff,” Leiter said. “And I wasn’t always the guy on the field that you talked about. Having that in my memory I kind of go with that mentality.
“I guess I still think of myself as an undersized, right-handed pitcher.”
Leiter is on the precipice of his second season with Vanderbilt baseball – although it will be his first full campaign after COVID-19 shortened the 2020 season to just 18 games for Vanderbilt. It could also be Leiter’s last go-round with Vandy as he is eligible for the 2021 MLB Draft in July.
A confluence of the past, present and future has been woven through his young life for some time now. That will be no different this spring as the 20-year-old continues to make a name and legacy for himself.
An Offseason of One’s Own
Leiter was incredibly upset at the turn of events in March when COVID-19 caused the cancelation of the 2020 baseball season. But, he said, that sadness was felt more so for his teammates and coaches, some of whom would never wear the black and gold again, than strictly for the end of his own rookie campaign with the Commodores.
When the dust settled from those turbulent first few days after a now-canceled season, Leiter had returned to his home in Summit, New Jersey, and began to have a new outlook on the months ahead.
“I sort of saw it as a blessing in disguise, a time to really work on some things, both mechanically and also just with the addition of certain pitches and things of that nature,” Leiter said. “I kind of took the next month or two after that March off and really just focused on my time in the weight room, getting stronger and the important things for a pitcher like arm care, working the small muscles that are really important in the pitching delivery.”
In discussions with Vanderbilt associate head coach Scott Brown, Leiter knew he had to improve how he managed the lower half of his motion in order to create a more effortless delivery. Leiter also continued to work in the weight room and train in his basement during the cold and snowy days in the Northeast.
Eventually, Leiter began to connect with former high school teammates and current college players from the area. They wanted to hit quality pitching and Leiter wanted to challenge himself against dangerous hitters.
Anthony Volpe, a former Vanderbilt commitment and current prospect in the New York Yankees’ system, Danny Serretti, a shortstop at the University of North Carolina, and Nolan Jones, the No. 1-ranked prospect in the Cleveland organization, were just a few of the men who stepped in the batter’s box to face Leiter this offseason.
“I built up like I would build up for a normal season, so it was over a bunch of weeks – just sort of a progression of both volume and intensity of throwing,” Leiter said. “Once I got to the point where I felt like I was game ready to throw in games I started facing hitters and I would say I probably simulated five or six starts or outings once I got going.”
If all that wasn’t impressive enough, Leiter began to improve his changeup to add to his fastball-curveball-slider arsenal. Oh, then one day former Vandy star Austin Martin (now with the Toronto Blue Jays) texted Leiter and asked if the kid knew how to throw a cutter?
So now Leiter can whip that out when he wants to as well.
“I sort of thought about it and what that would look like and it kind of made sense to me,” Leiter said. “I think it’s a fun pitch to show so I’ve added that as well.”
The Leiter Ladies
Much is known about Leiter’s relationship with his father.
Al Leiter won 162 games as a pitcher during a 19-year MLB career that included two All Star appearances and two World Series rings. His post-playing career has included work as a studio analyst for MLB Network, the YES Network and Fox Sports Florida.
The elder Leiter has also more often that not spoken on behalf of his only son when it comes to his pitching successes and his future plans.
Leiter and his father have a special and unique bond. Al still charts Jack’s pitches during outings so the two can go back the next day and study the psyche of why a pitch was thrown and when.
Jack also said the two have an understanding of when to study – and when to not.
“He does a really good job of staying away when he senses that. If I don’t want to talk, he knows it,” Jack said. “If the outing didn’t go my way and I’m not in the mood to talk, he knows it and he’ll maybe bring it up after a few days and then we’ll have that conversation.”
When it comes to things not baseball related? Enter the Leiter ladies.
That’s mom Lori and sisters Lindsay, Carly and Katelyn. There are the two female dogs at the house as well.
“That’s definitely made him more of a sensitive person because he has had all that around him,” Carly joked.
Carly Leiter may take a smidge more pride in her brother’s success than her siblings. After all, the equity and portfolio specialist at Bloomberg herself graduated from Vanderbilt in the spring of 2019 – one semester before little brother came to Nashville.
She and her sisters and parents had the fortune of returning to New Jersey last winter at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jack was home, too, and the family was together under one roof for the first time in a long time.
“Watching him as he’s grown has been amazing,” Carly said. “I think he’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met – and I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother.
“In the winter he would just be working out in the basement every day. Just to see his dedication and see how much he has improved even in the past few years, I’m just so proud of him – I know we all are.”
Jack credits his sisters a lot for his maturation and for his character as a person. But the guiding force that is his mother is on a pedestal unto itself.
A former lawyer, Lori Leiter means the world to her son.
“She’s the best,” Jack said. “I always say if I want advice on a curve ball or my mechanics I’m obviously going to go to my dad for that, but anything else, whether it’s from a life standpoint looking for advice or whether it was help on homework in high school, my mom is always the go-to.
“Some of her qualities and traits that she has I really strive to come close to, really. She’s the best listener that I’ve ever met and that I know and she’s so caring and kind and thoughtful. So from an advice standpoint, she’s had the most contribution from anyone in my life.”
Sticking With West End
In June of 2019, Leiter was selected by the New York Yankees in the 20th round of the MLB Draft despite he and his father publicly insisting Jack would stick with his commitment to head coach Tim Corbin and Vanderbilt baseball.
Leiter doesn’t regret choosing that path one bit.
After all, he now has three of the best coaches he could ask for at his disposal at all times.
“Coach Corbin, his resume speaks for itself. He’s an amazing coach and figure to look up to,” Leiter said. “It’s awesome that anyone on the team really has access to such a knowledgable coach like that. Coach Brown is the same exact way.
“Then my dad – I always say it’s pretty lucky that I get to have one of the best pitching coaches living in my house.”
Leiter starred at the Delbarton School where he racked up an impressive array of awards and honors to match his gaudy statistics. Leiter is quick to point out, however, that during his youth baseball and middle school days he was just the tiny kid rotating positions who not many people paid attention to.
A bit of a growth spurt in high school helped Leiter begin to get noticed. The pitching success followed. In November 2018 he pledged to become a Commodore.
“What I’ve learned here and how I’ve developed as a person and a player, I just can’t see how I would have done that as much if I made a different decision,” Leiter said. “There’s absolutely no regret or anything of that nature. Very, very grateful and happy that I made that decision.”
The Leiter Side
Jack Leiter has an artistic side and senses many off the diamond probably don’t know that about him.
As a child his bedroom was littered with sketch books. He took a form and sculpture class in high school he felt was therapeutic and immensely enjoyable. Leiter would love to take art classes on West End, but the schedule often conflicts with his baseball training – his first love.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound right-hander does have time to fit in rounds of golf with teammates during off days. A smooth drive down the fairway or a slice into the woods won’t register a reaction from the young pitcher – just like a strikeout or walk wouldn’t on the diamond.
“If he’s not pitching a great game or if he’s pitching the best game I’ve ever seen him pitch his facial expressions will be the same either way,” Carly said. “How he does stay so level-headed and calm is amazing. That’s just how he is. That’s his personality.
“His life is very even-keeled and chill and he doesn’t let anything get to him. He’s obviously super-competitive and a super hard worker and really dedicated at what he does, but he’s also a really chill kid and has always been that way. I think that’s amazing that Jack can do that.”
Leiter’s stoicism was on full display Feb. 18 in his Vandy debut. He threw five no-hit innings against South Alabama at Hawkins Field and struck out 12 hitters during his first 80 college pitches.
Leiter went on to make three more appearances and finished his freshman “season” with 22 Ks and three earned runs allowed on five hits in 15 2/3 innings. Opponents hit just .098 against him.
Coming into 2021, Leiter’s mindset and mentality hasn’t changed. Truth be told he’s not even thinking about an encore or past triumphs or even resuming his Commodore career. On a Tuesday morning this week he was solely focused on that day of work – traits his father and Corbin consistently harp on.
“Just improve each and every day. I truly believe that’s the best way to do it, is just daily, small improvements instead of looking at the bigger picture,” Leiter said. “My dad always says to just really enjoy the process and don’t get too caught up in the end goal whatever it might be. Just really enjoy the process each and every day and take that to a game level each and every pitch, put all you have, all your focus and emphasis on that pitch and don’t look ahead to any pitches or any hitters that are about to come up and don’t look to the past whether you just gave up three home runs in a row it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the next pitch.
“It’s sort of like that for life, too. It’s all about that day that you’re living.”
Vanderbilt is scheduled to open the 2021 slate Feb. 19 against Wright State at Hawkins Field. Leiter will be penciled in to start one of the three games during that weekend series and interest will be peaked to see what one of Vandy’s aces has up his sleeve over the next five months.
The No. 2 MLB Draft prospect according to MLB.com, behind only teammate Kumar Rocker, Leiter, who turns 21 in April, really only wants what most every other competitor wants at the end of the day: To leave the field as a winner.
“My general competitiveness and the joy I get from playing the game of baseball and playing it at a high level, as high of a level as I can, I would say that alone drives me to try to get better each and every day,” Leiter said. “I’m just enjoying the process – I really do enjoy it – and enjoying spending time with teammates and all these cool people that this game has introduced me to.
“I guess from an end-goal standpoint when I succeed and have good games I just think there’s no better feeling than that.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.