High school players with a first-round projection usually take the money to turn pro. The millions of dollars teams shove at them are hard to turn down; that kind of money can stabilize an uncertain future, not to mention all the fun stuff it can buy in the meantime. Much like in literal gambling, when sports players bet on their future selves to improve their draft position, they wind up watching their paychecks shrink as they struggle to adapt to better competition.
Jack Leiter, on the other hand, gambled on himself and won.
The right-handed pitcher from Florida honored his Vanderbilt commitment despite being widely mocked as a top-25 player in his 2019 draft class. Two years later, he’s as close to a lock for the first five selections as anyone could be in this draft class. Why is the scouting industry so sure of his future, and could the Tigers be involved? Let’s take a look.
Among players in the 2021 MLB draft, you’re hard-pressed to find one closer to major league readiness than Leiter. He’s athletic on the mound and has a good feel for pitching, both of which are strong indicators that he can develop good command of his pitches. He already throws four of them with conviction and the whole mix have the potential to be solid to above-average pitches
His best pitch is a fastball that sits in the 94-97 miles per hour range on his best nights. That’s above-average velocity for any starter, and especially impressive for an amateur who already has an idea of how to control it. Leiter’s spin rate isn’t stupendous, but it’s a respectable 2100 rpm with rising action. That plays well in a modern pitching environment and could develop into a swing and miss pitch down the road. He also gets a surprising amount of extension from his frame, which makes life just that much harder on hitters who step in against him.
A major factor of his appeal as a prospect in high school was how much feel Leiter has for his curveball, which dives at the plate and can induce weak contact or whiffs depending on its usage. He also throws a slider and a changeup. Neither grabs as much attention as his big curveball, but they’re consistently praised as excellent developmental building blocks. If everything clicks, he’ll be able to boast four above-average to plus pitches with plus control and above-average command.
Though he’s not as refined as Casey Mize was in 2018, the list of players with a higher floor than Leiter to come through the draft in the last half-decade is pretty slim. There are some adjustments that need to be made, which we’ll discuss in a moment, but it’s tough to see him failing to become at least a solid middle reliever or back-end starter, barring injury. That may not sound like a compliment, but it absolutely is.
Like many amateur pitchers, the thing that Leiter is lacking is consistency. FanGraphs said it best when they wrote this: “The curveball... and his low-80s slider can sometimes run together, and the biggest piece of Leiter’s pro development will be either defining these two breakers more clearly (i.e. throw a harder slider) or mastering a changeup, which sometimes flashes bat-missing action but which Leiter barely throws.”
The same can be said of his fastball. The form it took on at some points during the 2021 season was already major league caliber, but he sometimes lost his command of it hitters teed off on him. He’s also new to his high-end velocity range, and there are concerns that it could settle back down to a slightly lower range in pro ball because he only showed that high heat for a few weeks.
These aren’t huge concerns, especially in light of how much work often has to be done to get a pitcher to be ready to face an MLB level of competition. However, fixing them will make the difference between his becoming a roster depth piece or a rotation stalwart.
Expected draft range: 1st-4th overall
The Rangers pick second overall, and Leiter fits just as easily with them as any other team. Recent mock drafts, including that from Prospects Live, have put him in the second spot, but Texas is reportedly interested in a range of players. The indications seem to be that after Marcelo Mayer at the top, Leiter and Jackson Jobe are the 2A and 2B on Detroit’s draft board. There was some early speculation that the Tigers’ eventual choice would be heavily influenced by proximity to the major leagues. If that’s the case, Leiter is a natural pick.
He’s legitimately in play for every pick at top of the draft, but there has been heavy reporting that he and the Red Sox have mutual interest. The connection between the two parties has been darn near impossible to escape as the draft is has drawn close. It’s tough to know whether that’s been influenced by teams leaking deliberately false reports, but frankly, that’s almost always the case when a player and team are linked so broadly outside the top spot.
Performance doesn’t move the needle on a player’s draft stock if it’s good, but streaky seasons can throw up a little red flag for MLB teams. That could be the case with Leiter, who went through a rough patch and took a week off for rest. That’s not a huge deal, but players at the top of the draft attract unbelievable amounts of scrutiny. In Leiter’s case, his performance will cause some teams to question the durability of his 6’1” frame. In turn, that could drive him down their board and into the greedy hands of a team just below them in the draft order.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to see him sliding past Boston simply based on talent alone. Plenty of players are flashier than Leiter, but no one can match his combination of upside and refinement.