Photo by Cheryl Pursell
For much of his minor league career, Mark Leiter has been somewhat under the radar. He’s put up good numbers, but the argument over whether he’s a starter or a reliever and just how he fits into the organization’s plans has raged on.
In 2014, Leiter pitched exclusively as a starter at both Lakewood and Clearwater and put up the worst numbers of his career for a full season. The next two seasons, he was primarily a starter, but made a total of 12 relief appearances in his time with Clearwater and Reading. As a starter, Leiter made 38 starts over those two seasons, posting a 13-10 record with an ERA of 3.46. In 12 relief appearances, he went 1-0 with two saves and a stellar 1.47 ERA.
Coming into this season, the Phillies had somewhat of a glut of starting pitching prospects at the upper levels of the minors, and the decision was made to use Leiter exclusively as a reliever. In his first two relief appearances of the season, he had an ERA of 1.69 and of the 16 outs that he recorded, 11 were on strikeouts, while he walked just two batters. He had collected two groundball outs for every flyball out that he recorded and seemed set as a reliever.
When the Phillies needed a fresh arm at the major league level, they plucked Leiter from Lehigh Valley, in what was somewhat of a surprising move and added him to their bullpen, where he was a forgotten man and waited for 10 days before finally getting to make his major league debut with the Phillies. Overall, Leiter made 12 relief appearances in the majors with a 4.74 ERA in those appearances, prompting his return to Lehigh Valley on June 3rd.
With all of the starting pitching that was shuttling between Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley, and the injuries that were cropping up, the Phillies gave IronPigs manager Dusty Wathan instructions to use Leiter as a starter to “stretch him out.” The goal wasn’t necessarily – and still might not be – to have Leiter return to starting, but they wanted him to serve as a long-man out of the bullpen.
“They just want him to get stretched out a little, and we have a need in the rotation, so it sort of fits for right now,” said Wathan when Leiter arrived at Lehigh Valley. “This way, if he’s needed for longer stints with the big league club, he’ll be ready.”
In just under three weeks with the IronPigs, Leiter made three starts with Lehigh Valley and not all were smooth. Going on pitch counts, Leiter lasted 4 2/3 innings in his first start, giving up two earned runs. His next start lasted just three innings and he was getting pounded by Buffalo, giving up seven runs on ten hits. Then, something clicked, and Leiter looked like a different pitcher in his third start with Lehigh Valley. The 26-year old threw six shutout innings, needing just 74 pitches – he was targeted to throw 80 – and he picked up the win in the IronPigs 4-3 Father’s Day win over Syracuse.
“He did a really good job of changing speeds and he used his breaking ball earlier. Last time out, he didn’t go to the breaking ball early and got in trouble in the first inning,” explained Wathan after what would be Leiter’s last Triple-A start. “Today, he just pitched better and he got more comfortable back int hat starting role. Sometimes, it takes a couple times around to get comfortable.”
Leiter has a six-pitch repertoire, but relies primarily on four pitches – four-seam fastball, splitter, sinker and slider – whether he’s starting or relieving. He also has a curve that he doesn’t roll out as much and a change-up that he’s starting to gain more confidence in throwing. Even though he can strike out fairly high numbers of batters, Leiter doesn’t live and die on missing bats. His fastball, splitter and slider all have solid movement and induce a lot of groundballs. In both his last start at Lehigh Valley and his first start in the majors, Leiter went to the breaking pitches early and more often than he had done previously.
“I think I probably kept my starter mentality as a reliever, which I was working on more so than coming back to starting. I’m definitely comfortable as a starter and just looking to build up and get back to form. Starting is fun when you’re going good, there’s no better job in baseball, so I’m just going with whatever role I’m put in and just trying to get better each time I get the ball,” Leiter explained.
Leiter’s last minor league outing came on Father’s Day, with his Dad, Mark Leiter Sr. in attendance. Leiter’s Dad and Uncle, Al Leiter, get to see Leiter pitch pretty regularly because they’re not too far away, living near Tom’s River, New Jersey. The younger Leiter admits that he enjoys pitching in front of his family. He’s also gotten a lot of advice from his Dad, who spent part of his career in Philadelphia, making the Leiter’s the 15th father-son combination to play for the team.
Much of Leiter’s approach and philosophy about pitching comes from his Dad and the things that he learned from him.
“You have to find a way to not let bad outings turn into bad months and you have to turn it around. I’m always talking to my Dad and I’m happy that it probably wasn’t too stressful of a game, because he gets pretty worked up when I’m pitching,” laughed Leiter. “He always said it was tougher watching me or my uncle pitch than pitching himself.
“He always taught me to try to stay in the middle, because it’s never as good as you think and it’s never as bad as you think. He played until he was 39 or 40 years old and he always told me “don’t stop learning.” No matter what team you’re on or who your coaches are, you can always learn something. He made some drastic changes when he was 35 or 36 that really extended his career, so I think as a pitcher you’re always looking to change and learn something along the way.”
So the question remains, just who is Mark Leiter and how will the Phillies look to use him in the majors? Wathan believes that Leiter can have success as either a starter or a reliever.
“I think so, he’s got five or six pitches. He doesn’t have that overpowering fastball, but I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t help us here and if they need a guy in Philly, I don’t see it out of the realm of possibilities for him to be a back of the rotation guy, maybe not all year, but a guy who could give you five, six, seven starts and be a long guy out of the bullpen. I think it’s valuable to stretch him out and have a bunch of innings coming into next year,” said Wathan after Leiter’s Father’s Day outing.
Leiter feels fortunate just to be able to live out his dream and while he admits to having somewhat of a penchant for starting, he’s willing to work in any role that the Phillies would want to use him in, and he’s shown that he can physically and mentally handle either role with the club.
“I think one of the strengths of my pitching is that I can go back-and-forth,” said Leiter. “I love to start, because you have your routine, but sometimes, it doesn’t always work that way. However it works out, I’m just going to try to put on my best effort and keep working to get better, so that whatever opportunity comes, I’m prepared for it.”
Leiter’s path back to the majors came when Jerad Eickhoff went on the DL with an upper back strain. As it worked out, Leiter and Eickhoff were pitching on the same days, making the return easy for both Leiter and the Phillies. Whether or not Leiter will stay in the rotation with the club is going to have to wait for an answer. Ben Lively and Nick Pivetta have both pitched well recently, Aaron Nola and Jeremy Hellickson are set in the rotation, and a healthy Eickhoff showed last season that he can get major league hitters out. It’s completely possible that when Eickhoff returns, Leiter will either head for the Phillies bullpen or back to the Lehigh Valley rotation. Right now, it’s likely that even the Phillies don’t really know where Leiter will be long-term, but it appears that there is definitely a future for him in the Phillies organization.