Photo by Cheryl Pursell
Tuesday during batting practice, IronPigs manager Dusty Wathan called reliever Mark Leiter down to the end of the dugout for a quick talk. “There’s no easy way to say this…” started Wathan, watching for a reaction from Leiter, who may have assumed the worst. “But you’re going to New York.”
That was how Leiter found out that he was taking another step in following in his Dad’s footsteps and getting a chance to pitch in the majors. Leiter left Coca-Cola Park and headed for CitiField in New York, where he would meet up with his new teammates in the Phillies clubhouse.
It’s likely that if Leiter weren’t the son of a former major league pitcher, he wouldn’t have generated much attention at all early in his professional career. That’s not to say that he wasn’t good or didn’t have the credentials on his own to have been drafted by the Phillies in the 22nd round of the 2013 Draft, but there wasn’t anything largely distinguishing about Leiter. He doesn’t have dominating velocity, he doesn’t have a curve that buckles hitters time after time, and he didn’t come from a big baseball program. Instead, he has good velocity, with above average secondary pitches, and was drafted out of the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Not the stuff that huge resumes are made of, but that’s why he lasted until the 22nd round.
“He’s a guy that we’ve bounced him all over the place,” said Wathan about Leiter’s time in the minors. “We’ve sent him down, we’ve sent him up, we’ve put him in the bullpen, we’ve put him in the rotation, we’ve said ‘okay, pitch the ninth inning, pitch the third inning.’ For him, it’s great for his development, because now, if needed at any level, he’s going to be prepared for it.”
Leiter was a starter in college, but the Phillies initially used him as a reliever in the Gulf Coast League right after drafting him. Then, that same Summer, he was back in the rotation for Lakewood in three games, and pitched split his two games with Clearwater between the rotation and the bullpen. In 2014, he made 27 starts between Lakewood and Clearwater, and the following season pitched in 19 games, with 13 starts at Clearwater before starting eight games with Reading without working as a reliever. Last season, he made 17 starts and six relief appearances with Reading, and this season was set to be a fixture in the Lehigh Valley bullpen, although he was listed tentatively as a starter when the season’s first double-header came up after a rainout. That start was scrapped, and he was back in the pen.
For some pitchers, that type of uncertainty would be an issue. Leiter adjusted well, never complained, and basically was a good soldier, doing all he was asked to do by the Phillies organization.
“I think it’s hard for some guys to do that. Some guys need to know what they’re doing, when they’re doing it. That is a huge asset to have to be able to bounce back and forth and just roll with the punches, and he’s got the perfect mentality for it,” explained Wathan. “He just has the mentality that he just wants to pitch whenever and wherever, ‘I’ll go pitch in Reading, I’ll go pitch in Lehigh, wherever you want me to pitch, I’ll just go pitch.’ He’s competitive as heck when he gets out there, which is huge. He’s a baseball player and you can tell that he grew up around it.”
Leiter’s Dad, Mark Sr. pitched 11 seasons in the majors, including two in Philadelphia. Like his son, the elder Leiter spent time in both major league rotations and bullpens. In fact, with the Phillies, he made 31 starts in 1997 and followed that up with no starts and 69 relief appearances in 1998. In ’97, he had the dubious distinction of leading the league in losses (17) and earned runs allowed (115), posting a 5.67 ERA. As a reliever though, he was 7-5 with a 3.55 ERA. In the majors, Leiter Sr finished his career 65-73, 4.57, pitching for the Yaknees, Tigers, Angels, Giants, Expos, Phillies, Mariners and Brewers.
It will be interesting to see how the Phillies handle Leiter at the major league level. Their bullpen, especially at the front end, is still somewhat under construction. Adam Morgan was going to be the long-man and emergency starter, but he was so ineffective in just two appearances that he was optioned out to Lehigh Valley last week. Joely Rodriguez, next in line for that job, had a horrible stretch of three consecutive relief appearances, but has bounced back to throw scoreless innings in each of his last two outings.
Leiter would be perfectly suited to pick up the long relief role, should the Phillies decide to keep him in the majors longer than just for the next week or so until they get Howie Kendrick off the DL.
Whatever Leiter’s roll turns out to be, Wathan believes that he’s situated well to handle anything the organization throws at him. For Wathan, Leiter has proven his worth to the organization and will fit himself into whatever the Phillies need him to be.
“He wasn’t a highly touted guy, wasn’t a big prospect, but it ends up being an advantage for him,” explained Wathan. “Because for a highly touted prospect, you leave him in the rotation for a long time, then you move him to the bullpen, you never bounce him back and forth, so it’s a little bit to his advantage. Now, he’s just comfortable and says ‘just give me the ball.'”