(The 2021 MLB draft starts on Sunday. The Red Sox hold the No. 4 overall pick in the first round, their highest selection since 1967. Leading up to the first round on Sunday, the Globe will offer a closer look at some of the players in consideration for the team’s first-round selection.)
In a usual year, the Red Sox would never dream of having access to the best college pitcher in the country. This is not a usual year.
With the No. 4 overall pick, there’s at least a chance they will have a shot at Vanderbilt righthander Jack Leiter. The 21-year-old dominated as a sophomore in 2021, going 11-4 with a 2.13 ERA, 14.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and 3.7 walks per nine.
His pitch mix is electric, anchored by a mid- to high-90s fastball that explodes at the top of the strike zone. He complements that with a major league-quality curveball, slider, and changeup. Some evaluators see front-of-the-rotation potential, even if his command as well as durability questions make a mid-rotation projection a safer bet.
There’s a long list of elite college pitchers taken at the top of the draft who never fulfilled the lofty expectations that greeted their entry into pro ball.
But it’s not hard to imagine Leiter, the son of former big league pitcher Al Leiter, zooming into a big league rotation. With Sunday’s draft on the near horizon, the Red Sox can be forgiven if they daydream about seeing the righthander in a Sox uniform.
It’s not necessary to strain the imagination to fathom such a possibility. In the summer of 2018, Leiter — then readying for his senior season at the Delbarton (N.J.) School — traveled the scouting showcase circuit. Among his stops: the East Coast Pro showcase in Hoover, Ala., where he pitched for the Red Sox, wearing the red alternate jersey with the No. 46.
(In the video below, Leiter can be seen pitching for his Red Sox team around the 20-second mark.)
That team was coached by Red Sox Northeast regional scouting supervisor Ray Fagnant, who was actually coaching the promising young righthander for a second straight summer. The previous year, Fagnant worked with Leiter at the Area Codes Games’ underclass tournament, a showcase event in which Fagnant’s son, catcher Christian Fagnant, also participated.
“I remember the first game [Jack Leiter] threw. I remember going down the line,” said Ray Fagnant. “I saw Al. He said, ‘I’m nervous, my son is pitching.’ I said, ‘I’m more nervous, my son is catching.’ ”
In that summer of 2017, Leiter showed an advanced feel to pitch but was still developing physically. His fastball sat at 86-90 m.p.h. and his curveball was 72-74 m.p.h. Still, his maturity and sense of purpose on the mound stood out.
“It was like talking to his dad, talking to a veteran,” said Fagnant.
When Fagnant reunited with Leiter — with both in Red Sox uniforms — at the East Coast Pro showcase in 2018, he recognized how little needed to be said.
“I walked back [from] the bullpen to the dugout and Jack was walking to the pen to get loose. I just met him in left field and I said, ‘Hey, you know what to do, go get ‘em,’ ” said Fagnant. “He had a really good night. He was just so professional and the stuff was good. It was just fun watching him.”
On that day, in a 4-2 Red Sox win over the East Coast Pro Diamondbacks, Leiter showed considerable strength and stuff gains while throwing three shutout innings, allowing two hits, walking three, and striking out five. His fastball registered at 92-95 m.p.h., a significant jump that served as a harbinger of more to come.
“Listening to the old-time scouts, they always talked about this,” said Fagnant. “Guys who had good deliveries and good arm action but are physically underdeveloped are really going to come on.”
Meanwhile, Leiter showed a three-pitch mix — fastball, curveball, changeup — that is almost never evident in high schoolers. For hard-throwing prep arms, a changeup represents a gift to hitters who can rarely get to velocity in the 90s. But Leiter understood how to use it as part of a full repertoire.
“He had good deception, arm action, and command of it, and everything else so that he could be further dominant with the third pitch. It’s very rare to see a high school kid have all three,” said Fagnant. “He threw them with a purpose. He didn’t throw them for the sake of throwing them. He knew what he was doing.”
Based on his performance that summer and in his senior year at Delbarton, Leiter showed first-round talent. His career trajectory since that point doesn’t come as a shock.
“Every component was there. The delivery, the pitchability, the stuff, the three pitches, and he worked at it,” said Fagnant. “It’s not a surprise just knowing him because I got that early look. Everything was set in motion for him to be really good.”
Still, Leiter always seemed intent on going to Vanderbilt before turning pro, a fact on which Fagnant reflected in reaching out to Al Leiter to wish the family well on the eve of the 2019 draft.
“I vividly remember texting Al,” recalled Fagnant. “[The text said] I know he’s pretty certain he’s going to school but let’s do this again in two years for real and make him a Red Sox.”
Those two years have now come and gone. Will Fagnant’s well-wishes to the Leiter family prove prophetic?
Leiter dominated to such an extent this year that he may be off the board by the time the Red Sox make the fourth overall selection on Sunday. Even if he is available, the possibility exists that the Sox will choose a position player, generally a less-risky demographic.
Still, Leiter might be the talent who justifies the risk of taking the pitching plunge at the top of the draft, and because the Red Sox are picking so high, there’s at least a chance that a showcase game three summers ago will prove a harbinger of Leiter’s future.
The Red Sox scouted the righthander extensively all season, with one evaluator after another — including chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom — heading to Vanderbilt, watching the maturation of a pitcher who looked so promising while pitching for a different Red Sox team in the summer of 2018.
“It’s all come so quickly,” said Fagnant. “It will be interesting.”