The 2017 season was just a couple of weeks old. In fact, Mark Leiter had made just two relief appearances with Lehigh Valley when manager Dusty Wathan called him into the office to tell him that the Phillies had added him to the 40-man roster and were bringing him to the majors for the first time. That was on April 18th. It would be another 10 days until Leiter would actually step onto a major league mound, making it a total of 16 days since he had last pitched. When he came in from the bullpen at Dodgers Stadium, the experience suddenly got very real for the 26-year old.
“I would say it was interesting,” said Leiter of having to bide his time before making his debut. “There’s a lot of emotion that goes into it and there’s no way to prepare for your major league debut other than to just do it, so it was tough. I definitely think my nerves were settled because I had been up there for a decent amount of time, so I think by the time I got in there for my first opportunity, I think a lot of that nervous energy and the nerves about getting out there were gone and it was more like just getting to pitch again.”
April 18th became a whirlwind day for Leiter. He found out during the day that he was headed for the majors and after rushing around, arrived at CitiField in New York to meet his new teammates. It was just about an hour before game time against the Mets when Leiter arrived and he spent the night sitting in the bullpen watching a 6-2 win over the Mets. Once he was able to settle in for a while, Leiter took in all of the aspects of what life in the majors is all about.
“I called my wife first, but then I called my Dad right after that,” remembers Leiter. “It took me about 20 minutes to get a hold of him though. It was great when I finally got through and got to talk to him and let everybody know. We’re all just about an hour away, so they were able to be there and it was just an amazing feeling.
“It was a great experience and it helped me learn different aspects. It’s the same game, but there are other things that go into it there as you’re experiencing it for the first time, but it was a great opportunity and I’m looking forward to getting my next one,” said Leiter.
While there really is no way of preparing for a major league debut, Leiter’s Dad had gone through the same thing almost 27 years earlier as a member of the Yankees pitching in relief against the Texas Rangers. The elder Leiter threw 1 1/3 shutout innings that day, while the younger version threw one shutout inning in his debut against the Dodgers. In his next outing against the Cubs, Leiter allowed two runs in his first inning of work, but manager Pete Mackanin stuck with him in an 8-3 game that Cubs were leading, and was rewarded with two shutout innings following that initial speed-bump.
Leiter’s initial MLB experience lasted until June 2nd when he pitched 2 1/3 innings against the Giants, giving up one hit and three walks. After the game, the Phillies optioned Leiter back to Lehigh Valley, looking for him to hone in on the control that had helped get him to the majors. In his minor league career, Leiter had walked just 2.3 batters per nine innings, but in the majors, that number escalated to 6.6 walks per nine, while he struck out just 5.7 batters for every nine innings pitched. Walking more batters than you strike out isn’t going to give you a long lifespan in the majors and Leiter understands what he needs to do to get back to Philadelphia.
“They just wanted me to come down here and keep attacking and get better every day. I don’t know that there was one thing specifically, but just keep pitching well and keep attacking the zone,” said Leiter.
With Lehigh Valley, Leiter will go back to working as a starter, something that he did for most of his early career with the Phillies. While he made just four starts and 12 relief appearances in his debut season, 65 of his next 77 appearances were as a starter. Last season, Leiter was moved to the bullpen while with Double-A Reading, and he had pitched in two games in relief with Lehigh Valley this season in his only time at the Triple-A level.
“It’s not really a difference to me, you have slightly different approaches, but in the end, you still just have to get guys out.”
The Phillies obviously have a belief that Leiter can help them in some capacity down the road. After all, they brought him to the majors with just two Triple-A appearances under his belt and they had to clear a spot on the 40-man roster – which isn’t easy to do with a lot of young talent on the roster – to bring him to Philadelphia.
“To not be on the roster and get called up is kind of awesome,” said Leiter.
IronPigs manager Dusty Wathan says the Phillies want to get Leiter stretched out a little so they can use him in longer roles out of the bullpen.
“We’re going to put Leiter in the rotation to stretch him out a little bit,” explained Wathan. “Obviously, he’s on the roster, so give them a little bit more length if they need it going forward.”
Wathan did note that the plan is to keep Leiter as a reliever, long-term. For now though, the Phillies desire to have him available for longer outings and Lehigh Valley’s need for some starting pitching because of promotions to the majors and injuries, makes it convenient to put Leiter in the rotation.
Leiter just wants to pitch. Earlier in the year, Wathan described him as the kind of guy who will take the ball in any and all situations and run with the opportunity. Leiter will likely get another opportunity to pitch in the majors before too long. With some more minor league success and experience, he’s likely to rejoin the Phillies before the September call-ups head for the bright lights of the big city.
“You always want to get there,” said Leiter. “And once you’ve been there, you certainly want to get back, so I’ll work on stuff and do whatever they want me to do to get me back there.”