Jack Leiter spent most of the late winter and early spring perched atop MLB mock drafts.
Now, however, with the amateur baseball season nearing its end, things have changed.
The Vanderbilt pitcher is still considered the best hurler available in July’s draft. However, the son of former big league pitcher Al Leiter no longer is considered the consensus No. 1 pick. In fact, some experts believe Leiter could fall as low as No. 4 where the Boston Red Sox wait.
That sort of thing would have seemed borderline insane back in February when the college baseball season got going. It became even harder to believe a month into the season when Leiter faced the minimum in a March 20 no-hitter against South Carolina in which he struck out 16 Gamecocks.
Leiter was undefeated through his first nine starts, averaging a hilariously unhittable 13 punchouts per start.
Why, then, is Leiter now projected to go to the Red Sox with the No. 4 pick in the latest Baseball America mock draft?
There are a few reasons. Some of them have to do with Leiter’s performance, some of them have to do with his profile and some are completely out of his control.
Leiter’s performance has slightly dropped off since that ridiculous start to the season. He’s 8-2 this year for the Commodores, striking out 127 over 76 1/3 innings of work as the SEC tournament and College World Series near. Those are great numbers, obviously, but they do represent a slight dropoff. There’s also this: Leiter has allowed 10 home runs in 13 starts.
“As the season has worn on, scouts have found some of the holes in his game,” Fangraphs’ Kevin Goldstein wrote this week, pointing to both the home runs and a walk rate of nearly four free passes per nine innings.
“While he commands his curveball and slider very well,” Goldstein wrote, “the fastball is more of a spray-in-the-zone pitch, and scouts have always been concerned with his smallish frame holding up over the course of a big-league season.”
Leiter is listed at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, so it’s easy to see where scouts, who are professional critics, might nitpick. Leiter, by all accounts, works his tail off (the young man looks like he knows his way around a squat rack), and he certainly has put a good deal of weight on that relatively small (by professional pitcher standards) frame.
There’s also this obvious fact: the stuff is ridiculous.
One of Goldstein’s top contemporaries, ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel, dropped a couple of interesting comps in a story about Leiter and Vandy teammate Kumar Rocker — another option at No. 4 — earlier this year.
“It may be unfair, but Leiter has some helpful recent comps in Walker Buehler and Max Meyer, who both have similar builds, repertoires and approaches to pitching.”
Most casual fans know about Buehler, who also went to Vanderbilt. He’s been a mainstay of the Dodgers’ rotation for a few years, armed with an electric fastball and a breaking pitch with no shortage of depth. Meyer, meanwhile, was the third pick a year ago out of Minnesota, who entered the season as Baseball America’s No. 44 prospect.
Another reason for Leiter’s realtive “drop” down the draft board is the ebbs and flows of baseball seasons. BA has prep shortstop Jordan Lawlar going off at 1-1 to Pittsburgh, followed by shortstop Marelo Mayer to the Texas Rangers and Brady House to the Detroit Tigers. All three are high schoolers.
“We think the Red Sox are interested in all of the three prep shortstops who went in front of them in this mock draft, along with (Louisville catcher) Henry Davis and the Vanderbilt duo,” Baseball America’s Carlos Collazo wrote. “At this point, it sounds like Kumar Rocker is more likely to slip down the board a bit than Leiter, though both have raised a few questions in recent weeks.”
Quite frankly, if Leiter falls to the Red Sox at No. 4, they should jump at the opportunity to take him and not overthink it. That’s not meant to diminish and simplify the painstaking work done by Boston’s scouting department. It’s just that since the Red Sox so rarely draft this high, it might be worth it to take the chance on someone like Leiter who, at the very least, has flashed ace potential.
It’s possible this is all for naught. Goldstein, who gave Leiter 10-1 odds to go first overall, also indicated he believes Leiter will go in the top three picks. The Commodores open the SEC tournament Wednesday night in Alabama. Despite a late-season hiccup, No. 3 Vandy is loaded and is once again poised for a deep playoff run. If Leiter shoves for the next three weeks, he might be back up atop everyone’s draft boards by mid-June.
Or maybe he scuffles a little more against the top college competition in the nation. If that happens, it could open the door for a very interesting scenario for the Red Sox.