Wall Street Journal: Former UMass Lowell Lefty Now the Mets' Hot Prospect

Wall Street Journal: Former UMass Lowell Lefty Now the Mets' Hot Prospect


June 18, 2013

Courtesy of Wall Street Journal, Written by Dave Caldwell

TRENTON, N.J. — Jack Leathersich, the left-handed Mets farmhand/phenom known to his Twitter followers as the Leather Rocket, says he likes it here in the minor leagues—for now, anyway.

Players on the Double-A Binghamton Mets have to slap together their own peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich if they want a snack and must watch a prehistoric rear-projection TV in the visitors' clubhouse if they want to kill time, but Leathersich is thriving, and the B-Mets are in first place.

Leathersich sat in the dugout after batting practice Tuesday and said he thinks about pitching in the big leagues someday, but, almost in the next breath, he said of looking too far into the future, "I feel like all that does is put your head in the wrong place."

The major-league Mets are having a miserable season, which has left their fans to clamor for prospects. Chief among them is pitcher Zack Wheeler, who is expected to come up from Triple-A Las Vegas and make his major-league debut Tuesday in Atlanta.

But there is also the 22-year-old Leathersich, a setup man with an eye-popping statistic: 55 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings entering Wednesday. He has a 1.53 earned-run average, and right-handed batters are hitting .107 against him. His coaches and teammates are still shaking their heads at his one-inning outing May 31 against New Hampshire, when he struck out all three batters he faced—looking.

"I call him the magic man," said B-Mets— pitching coach Glenn Abbott.

This is why: At 5 feet 11, Leathersich is neither towering nor overpowering. His repertoire: a fastball that tops out at 95 miles per hour and a slider-curve that runs in the mid-80s. He has a typical three-quarters delivery.

When speaking of Leathersich's fastball, Abbott smiled and said, "It's not a 'wow'— thing. He throws it, and they don't hit it."

"He's just very confident," the pitching coach added. "He's been that way ever since he signed. He hasn't ever been arrogant. He just knows how to get guys out."

Above all, Leathersich has verve. He doesn't strike his teammates as particularly cocky, but he said, "When I come into a game, I pride myself on not fearing any batter. I'm not one of those guys who overthinks the game."

Asked if he was ready to pitch in the big leagues now, he paused, then said, "I think I'm mentally ready. Definitely. That's my biggest strength as a pitcher. The mental side."

OK, so maybe the Mets—who ranked 29th of 30 major-league teams in bullpen ERA—could use him now.

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson and assistant GM Paul DePodesta didn't return calls seeking comment, but Alderson acknowledged in an interview Monday on WFAN that Leathersich and right-handed B-Mets starter Rafael Montero could jump to the big leagues soon.

"There's no reason that either one of those guys can't come directly from Binghamton," he said, "Those two guys have distinguished themselves and are guys that we're very high on."

The Mets would like to see Leathersich walk fewer batters—although with 16 walks, one hit batter and no wild pitches this year, he isn't exactly throwing the ball over the backstop, either. He is spotting his pitches lower in the strike zone much better this year.

But there are still times when Leathersich likes to throw high fastballs. At this level, opposing batters just can't lay off such pitches that experienced big-leaguers might let sail by. The pitch has served him well, but Leathersich knows he can't get away with it forever.

"Sometimes it's as confusing to me just like everyone else," Blake Forsythe, the B-Mets' everyday catcher, said of Leathersich's effectiveness. "I think what really helps him the most is his deception. His delivery on the mound is not explosive, but the ball seems to explode out of his hand. You see those pitches at the top of the strike zone, and those are the pitches, as a hitter, you want to hit. And they swing and miss."

Leathersich essentially came out of nowhere. He was a fifth-round draft choice of the Mets in 2011. A native of Beverly, Mass., he pitched three years at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, which had only seven players drafted previously.

Leathersich could strike people out then, too: He was second in the nation as a junior with nearly 13 strikeouts per nine innings, and he was, briefly, impressive with the Brooklyn Cyclones after he signed with the Mets, with 26 strikeouts and an 0.71 ERA in 12 2/3 innings during the 2011 season.

He pitched last year for two Class-A— affiliates, Savannah and St. Lucie, striking out 113 batters (and walking 32) in 72 innings. Binghamton already had a closer, Jeff Walters, so Leathersich slid into the setup role, although he can finish games.

"The one thing, for sure, is that he needs to be challenged," Binghamton manager Pedro Lopez said. "Hitters, for whatever reason, just don't seem to get good swings against him."

Along the way, he picked up that intimidating nickname—the Leather Rocket—from a teammate in the Cape Cod League, Marcus Stroman, a Toronto Blue Jays draftee. Even though Leathersich isn't a particularly hard-thrower, it stuck.

"When I pitch, I'm not just trying to strike guys out," he said.

And yet the strikeouts just happen.

Leathersich smiled when he said he doesn't know exactly what his pitching coach means when he calls him the Magic Man, but he seems to know that he needs to keep working at pitching. There is more to it than just striking guys out.

"This year, he seems to have figured it out a lot more," said Forsythe, a teammate of Leathersich's for nearly two full years. "He's matured a lot from last year. In years past, it was just like, grab it and rip it."