Jack Leiter shares dad’s gifts but may choose own road to majors

It’s like growing up in Jersey City named Hurley. You’re going to play point guard.

Jack Leiter was always going to pitch, and he always wanted to, from the time he was a kid. It was in his blood. Even before his growth spurt, when he was one of the smallest kids on his travel team and mostly played infield, he made sure to pitch on the side.

“We pitch,” his father Al, the former Met and Yankee left-hander, said. “We’re pitchers.”

Jack is following in the family business, developing into one of the premier high school pitching prospects in the country. Delbarton’s senior ace right-hander with the mid-90s fastball and polished off-speed repertoire to match drew dozens of scouts to every one of his starts this spring. In Monday night’s MLB draft, he could surpass his father, a second-round pick of the Yankees in 1984. Some have projected him as a first-rounder, if his commitment to national powerhouse Vanderbilt and price tag that would go along with it doesn’t scare teams away. Baseball America ranks him 22nd of all draft-eligible prospects.

“If Jack wants to play pro ball and he wants to go in the draft, he’ll be a top-15 pick — no ifs, ands or buts,” Delbarton coach Bruce Shatel said of the Gatorade Player of the Year in New Jersey. “That’s the consensus. It’s basically up to him.”

No matters what happens, this has been a year the family won’t soon forget. Jack, 19, has pitched Delbarton into Wednesday’s Non-Public A state final — going 8-0 with 88 strikeouts, just 23 hits allowed in 53 innings pitched and a 0.53 ERA. Al has attended every game, after stepping away from his job as a Yankees announcer with the YES Network. He’s behind the backstop for every start — charting his son’s pitches, offering insight in between innings.

“What’s it been like? Fantastic. Terrific,” Al said. “Stuff you hope as a parent you get a chance to experience.”

Jack’s meteoric rise began a few years ago. Al saw his son had a love for pitching, so he created a workout plan based on what he did when he was a major league pitcher. He never pushed him. He simply gave him the formula that Jack has followed to a tee.

“I’ll come home and I’ll hear the thump of a heavy ball into the cement wall and I know he’s down there [in the basement],” Al said. “He’s a worker.”

Shatel has marveled at how meticulous his star pitcher is. He’s always doing something to get better. There is no down time at the park. He’s either running, throwing, working on his pickoff move or mechanics. He treats drill work like he’s on the mound in the state championship game. The work ethic and determination reminds his mother Lori of when Al was pitching in the big leagues.

“When it comes to working hard and improvement, I would say, yeah, I guess I am a perfectionist,” Jack said after finding fault with his shutout performance over 6 ²/₃ innings in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Non-Public A final victory over Don Bosco Prep on Friday.

Shatel didn’t see this when Jack joined his program as a freshman. He was small and didn’t throw overall hard. He knew how to pitch, and did well with a chance late in the year on the varsity. But it wasn’t until the following spring the longtime coach realized he had a legitimate prospect on his hands. Jack went through a growth spurt and during the team’s spring training in Florida, his velocity shot up.

Shatel and Al were behind the backstop chatting and clocking the team’s pitchers. Jack got their attention: 89, 90, 91.

“We both looked at each other in disbelief,” recalled Shatel, who said the only New Jersey prep pitcher he’s ever seen comparable to Jack is Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello.

Jack is just the latest in a long line of Leiters with a gift for throwing a baseball. Al was a 19-year veteran in the big leagues, winning three World Series titles and reaching two All-Star games. His brother Mark pitched for a decade in the majors. Mark’s son is still pitching professionally. Their brother Kurt pitched for Oklahoma State in the College World Series and in the minor leagues.

Al hoped his son would take another path, maybe become a third baseman. But he had the Leiter family flaw — Jack was frequently out in front at the plate, lunging at the ball — and possessed the pitching gift all the Leiter men seem to have.

“People might think that expectations are high, whatever it is, and that comes from [being his son], but I really don’t think the expectations are high,” Jack said. “I’m my own person. I’m trying to make a name for myself.”

Al said he believes his son is ahead of where he was at the same age. Jack throws harder, has better mechanics and a more polished set of pitches. He’s poised on the mound, and Al was admittedly a “nutjob” who took years to mature. The one drawback: Jack is just 6-foot; Al stands 6-foot-3. That, in addition to his scholarship to Vanderbilt, could hold him back Monday night.

“He has everything except for height,” a scout who has closely followed Jack said. “He has a chance for plus stuff across the board.”

Al’s love for pitching was clearly passed on to his son. Jack has roughly 40 quotes from famous pitchers hung up in his room, mostly about focus, poise and thinking the game. There, however, is not one from his dad.

“I get those every day,” he joked.

The two will talk pitching constantly. Jack basically lives with his personal pitching coach. Just the other day, Al showed him how David Cone would grip his slider. Jack tried it in a bullpen session, and is now throwing the pitch that way. They talk pitching at the dinner table. They talk pitching while watching television.

“Since Jack could talk and walk, it’s been baseball,” his mother said.

The next step is uncertain. The draft is Monday, but Jack said he is more focused on Wednesday’s state final. When the subject was broached with Al, he made it sound like college is in his son’s future, pointing to his prowess in the classroom and how important academics were in picking a school.

“I think he got straight A’s except two classes in four years of high school,” Al said. “He didn’t commit to Vanderbilt just because they’re really good at baseball. School matters to him, it matters to me and it matters to my wife.”

For now, father and son are just enjoying the present, reveling in this potential run to a state championship. Whatever comes Monday is gravy. Two days later he’ll be back on the mound, and Al will be behind the backstop following every pitch.

“This year,” Lori said, “has been like a dream for all of us.”

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