In early September, the Pittsburgh Pirates made a quiet move by picking up reliever Jack Leathersich off of waivers from the Chicago Cubs. The 27 year old southpaw ended up making the most out of his September call-up, recording six scoreless outings down the stretch. Now it looks like he could be in the bullpen mix for 2018.
Leathersich was kind enough to join both Jarrod Prugar and myself this week on our podcast “Pirates Countdown” to talk about what it’s like to be a Pirate, how he overcomes a lack of velocity to become one of professional baseball’s best strikeouts pitches, what coming to the Pittsburgh Pirates means to him and what the future holds. The interview can be found on the Pirates Breakdown Radio Network.
How he got here
Leathersich had Pittsburgh connections long before he suited up for the Bucs. His mom’s family is from Pittsburgh, and his 93 year old grandpa still lives in Fox Chapel. The lifelong Pirate fan ended up watching a game this year with his grandson suiting up for the home team.
“I was happier for him than I was for myself,” Leathersich said.
Leathersich broke into the big leagues with the Mets in 2015 but was waived shortly after undergoing Tommy John surgery midseason. He latched on with the Cubs for his rehab and made a brief cameo in the majors in 2017.
While Leathersich’s cup of coffee with the Cubs did not go well, his stint in AAA Iowa did. A spring training shoulder injury and the tail end of his Tommy John recovery slowed him down at the beginning of the season, so he did not feel 100 percent until mid-July. It’s around then the game “became fun again.”
He also turned in what he felt was probably the best season of his career. Leathersich lead all AAA pitchers who pitched at least 40 innings in K/9 with 14.62, which paired nicely with his 2.84 ERA. It was the type of performance that would usually warrant a September call-up. Instead, he was cut the day after Iowa’s season ended.
“When the call came, I didn’t really know what the call was,” Leathersich said. “It’s just part of the business. The longer you play this, the longer you realize there’s nothing that you can do besides just play. And when you’re playing and doing well, good things are going to happen.”
The Pirates swooped in right after, claiming him and promoting him to the big leagues on Sept. 10.
On the mound
The six foot, 205 pound lefty may not like a strikeout machine, but he is. He set school records as a senior at Massachusetts Lowell for both punchouts and K/9 and has averaged at least 10.45 K/9 at every stop in his professional career. He continued that trend in his time with the Pirates, fanning six in 4.2 innings.
Leathersich is not a fireballer, with his four-seamer averaging 91.6 MPH in his time as a Pirate. Out of the top 18 relievers in strikeouts per nine innings in the majors this year, only one had a lower average fastball velocity (Jerry Blevins of the New York Mets). He throws that heater often too, with less than one-fifth of his major league pitches being either changeups or curves.
So how does he do it?
“I literally have no idea,” Leathersich said.
“I could probably tell you better if I could face myself,” he joked later.
Leathersich has been told that his delivery may be the reason why. His arm slot is in a position that hides the ball well from batters and makes him harder to pick up. Mix that in with the illusion that his fastball rises since he sticks exclusively to four-seamers and comes in lower than most pitchers, and batters have had a hard time hitting him.
It also has lead to some control problems. Leathersich walked 28 in his 44.1 minor league innings this year. Free passes have been a problem throughout his minor league career, but this season’s numbers were inflated because he walked 10 in his first three innings due to his aforementioned shoulder injury.
“It’s just about being around the zone. If I can be around the zone, I feel like my stuff’s good enough,” Leathersich said.
Listen to the full podcast
Coming to the Pittsburgh Pirates was not just good news for Leathersich’s family. Between the promotion and being healthy, he finally is back to pitching the way he wants. He may have been used primarily against lefties in Pittsburgh, but he has had just as much success against righties. He should get more chances like that in 2018.
“This September, for me, was awesome because I was pitching in the role I have my whole life,” he said. “Come in somewhat late in the game, face a couple hitters, and you know, that’s it. Be ready to go tomorrow.”
He also got to work with pitching coach Ray Searage for a month, which he thought “was great.” A strikeout pitcher with some control problems sounds like the perfect project for the pitching coach. Searage has already pointed out a mechanical flaw that caused his breaking balls to fly open, but he did not immediately tinker. Like most pitchers he has worked with, he watched Leathersich live before making suggestions.
“Those are my favorite coaches: the ones that let you do you, and then if they need to make an adjustment, they make adjustment, instead of making an adjustment right off the bat,” Leathersich said.
Leathersich’s role on the 2018 team likely won’t be determined until spring training. The Pirates will likely have several spots in the bullpen open, and a lefty may get preferential treatment. But he has an option remaining on his contract. With plenty of other competition from the minor leagues are free agency, nothing is guaranteed.
If there is one guarantee, it’s that playing at the ballpark he and his dad went to when he was a kid isn’t losing its luster.
“I’m definitely the happiest I’ve been with the Pittsburgh Pirates, for sure.”
Image credit – Flickr Creative Commons