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Visiting the video room: Leiter makes his Mark in July

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The righty with pitching bloodlines posted a strong month in Toledo

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays-Workouts Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

It was not that long ago when many of the Detroit Tigers faithful were clamoring for the team to select Jack Leiter from Vanderbilt. That, of course, wasn’t an option but that doesn’t leave the organization Leiter-less. Those bloodlines currently have a station in Toledo with Mark Leiter Jr., who is Jack’s cousin.

The Tigers signed Leiter Jr. before the start of the 2021 season. He’s a 30-year-old veteran who’s amassed over 100 MLB innings. With the way things are going in Toledo, he may get a chance to add to that total — through his five starts in July, he totaled 25 innings, striking out 32, and allowing just two runs, including a stretch of 16 scoreless innings to end the month.

Scouting the stat line suggests that Leiter Jr. shouldn’t have made it out of Erie, but mind you, his 5.26 ERA for the Seawolves is probably inflated because of small sample sizes. Realistically his FIP was sub-four and he only gave up more than two runs in a start twice. So, he was promoted to the Mud Hens, just one step away from returning to The Show.

Background

The Leiter bloodlines are noted. While his cousin and uncle may get most of the family spotlight, his dad, Mark Leiter Sr., threw well over 1,000 innings in the MLB. Pitching is in the genes.

Leiter Jr. was originally drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2013 as their 22nd rounder out of New Jersey Institute of Technology. He made it to Double-A in his third professional season; he’d spend his entire fourth season there, too. His fifth season started with Philadelphia's Triple-A squad but ended with Leiter Jr. in the majors. That was 2017. He would get to throw just shy of 17 innings the following year before he was designated for assignment.

That was not the end for Mr. Leiter Jr., however, as the Toronto Blue Jays claimed him off of waivers on Sept. 1, finishing out 2018 with them. He was DFA’d again that November, but then outrighted to the minors. From there he went on the IL for all of 2019 before electing free agency. Obviously, 2020 was what 2020 was, and he signed with the Tigers for the 2021 season.

With the kind of season that Leiter Jr. is having he might play his way back to the MLB. Detroit may need some arms down the stretch. The signing, right now, looks mutually beneficial to both parties. Not bad for a minor league deal.

So, let’s dive in.

Fastball

One of four pitches that Leiter Jr. will unleash at any given time, the fastball generally sits 91-93 mph on the stadium guns. The key to this pitch is to work it to both sides of the plate, which he does well. It seems a lot of this velo comes from his arm speed, which is less whippy than usual for a case like that. By that I mean it looks like more effort. Either way, here are a few fastballs.

As demonstrated by these three GIFs, he generally likes to keep his fastball low and work downhill with it. That works well for a couple reasons. One is the rest of his arsenal, which is coming up in the next sections. The other is that working downhill and creating that angle is where the fastball should play best with his arm slot.

His cousin has unique fastball traits due to low release, but Leiter Jr. has an over-the-top arm slot. So by working down, he’s creating tougher angles for the hitter. So, theoretically, this means his ball won’t play as well up the zone. Well, that’s also not true.

Believe it or not, Leiter Jr. does like to elevate the fastball every now and then. It’s part of his sequencing, which is a delight to watch for pitching nerds. It works when it’s set up, but it looks like he can generate a little bit of ride too.

It’s a very intriguing pitch when he can locate it. Truthfully, he does a good job working east to west with it. One thing Leiter Jr. does in his delivery is open up his front shoulder before the foot strike. With that, his arm needs to be in a consistent place to keep everything on time. So take a look at this screenshot, which correlates with the second GIF of his fastball.

Note the position of the arm. Okay, now a second screenshot from a different pitch.

See how his arm is in a different position? It’s more cocked back, which is not where it needs to be. Here is the pitch that correlates with that late arm.

These fastballs don’t sail too often, but it does happen enough to note. More often than not, Leiter Jr. is painting corners at the knees and using the pitch very well.

Cutter

There isn’t a lot of difference between the way the fastball and cutter get used. The cutter is pretty consistently 87-88 mph when being used well but can also droop a bit in velocity at times. As he tends to work in and out, trying to keep the ball down, command is key here because it can slide up in the zone at times when he’s not careful. In general, this is a pitch he’s comfortable using in any count. My favorite use of this pitch is when he backdoors lefty hitters with two strikes, which is one of his go-to options. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a decent camera angle to show it off.

As mentioned, this is just another fastball weapon. The difference here is that when he’s at the lower echelon of the velocity, which generally seems like just a misfire, the pitch is more hittable. Intuitively, it’ll generate more sweep the slower it is. However, that same late arm that occasionally afflicts the fastball means some of these cutters are up in the zone. This might be a bad example considering the hitter is Bobby Witt Jr., but still, this is actually a well located pitch in terms of hitting the outer edge. But it’s not down where the catcher, and presumably Leiter, wants it. Witt Jr. is able to get a barrel on it and drive it the other way. This happens, it’s not JUST a Witt Jr. thing.

The ball landed on the warning track. A bad route from the right fielder stopped it from being caught, but the point stands. It got hit hard. This cutter is a decent offering, but, for me, is probably his fourth pitch. It’s basically just a change of pace to keep hitters honest against the fastball.

Changeup

From his fourth to what I believe is his best pitch, Leiter Jr. has a good changeup built on deception. It can be a swing and miss pitch at 84-86 mph and that is how he uses it most of the time. There isn’t an offering he won’t use in any count, but the changeup is generally the most reserved for late counts. Again, sequencing is a big thing here. He’ll show his slow curve, and his fastball/cutter combo and then drop the change; the deception and movement can be lethal.

That third GIF is Leiter Jr. striking out Nick Pratto, for what it’s worth. It’s a very good pitch when he is able to throw it. If you’ll recall the timing in his mechanics on the fastball, the opposite tends to happen with the changeup. There are times when it looks like he tries to overthrow it and it spikes. That is more likely with this offering than it going over anyone’s head.

I keep pointing out where these pitches miss, but it’s important to note that his walk numbers are not high. These are just isolated incidents throughout games, more tendencies for each offering. This changeup is his out pitch, and his best pitch, in my opinion. It’s just a matter of if that feel for it is there.

Curveball

Rounding out this arsenal is a slow curveball that sits at 72-74 mph. The pitch has 12-6 shape and is much slower compared to the rest of his arsenal. Where the changeup is his best, this might be the most interesting. Broken record: he’ll use it in any count. Despite its slow speed, the velocity separation can be quite the weapon for him. It’s over 10 mph slower than his changeup. That is a different look.

The timing issues in the delivery that affect the fastball will find their way into the curveball too. When it happens, it’s hard for this big looping pitch to miss high because it’ll break down. Something like this is about the closest the timing comes to really affecting the pitch.

When it comes to timing, velocity, and everything in general with this curveball, it’s important to note Leiter Jr.’s arm speed. It slows noticeably down when he throws the slow curve. If it works, it works, but it does make the timing of the whole delivery more complicated for the breaking ball. To illustrate this, there are two pitches in this GIF and I attempted to isolate just the pitcher and catcher. It’s tough to tell, but the arm speed is slower on the second pitch, the curveball.

That’ll round out the arsenal and frankly, it’s an interesting one when all put together. There’s a lot for a hitter to think about because of his ability to sequence and use these pitches in any count.

Final Thoughts

Leiter Jr. has been great this year, there’s no way around it. His arsenal is playing well and even though the numbers in Double-A look worse, he pitched the same way. A four-pitch mix that’s ready at any time, he’s a control-over-everything-else kind of arm. The walk numbers are low and even when the count goes to three balls, Leiter Jr. can fight without giving up too much on the zone. He’s the definition of pitchability allowing him to thrive where the raw stuff may not.

We don’t often look into a journeyman minor league starter like this. Despite numerous strong outings for Toledo, he’s still the type who might get a spot start or three at best. The type you hope can just get you some decent innings without blowing up until a better option returns from injury. But he is having a nice season by those standards and could get a call to help the Tigers out down the stretch.

The journey for Leiter Jr. has been a long one but the Tigers took a chance on him and it’s paying off. While there may not be a clear-cut path right now, he’s certainly pitching well enough where the next chance should be his. After not pitching for two years because of injury and a pandemic, this is the kind of situation that Leiter Jr. could hope for. The last time he donned a major league jersey was in 2018, and a strong July, coupled with a Tigers’ rotation worn thin with injury, indicates he may be on his way to wearing one again soon.