2017 Phillies Report Card: Mark Leiter Jr
Mark Leiter Jr. is the type of guy every team needs, but no one really ever wants to have to use. He’s a replacement level player occupying the long man/spot starter role who was thrust into 90 innings this year.
Relative to expectations (of which there were none), Leiter did his job. Thanks to a basically league average strikeout rate (21.3%) and a slightly above average walk rate (7.9%), he wasn’t below replacement level, despite allowing 21% of his fly balls to go over the fence. Maybe there’s a little bit of bad luck involved there, as HR/FB% is one of the noisiest stats and the league average is just 13.7%. Among pitchers with at least 90 innings pitched, Leiter had the worst HR/FB% outside of Yankee Stadium (Michael Pineda) and Coors Field (Tyler Chatwood).
The league average ERA, FIP, and xFIP was 4.36 this season, and Leiter’s xFIP was actually slightly above average at 4.19. With a league average HR/FB%, he could have been an average pitcher. The key for Leiter’s utility moving forward is if he can limit those home runs, and there’s reason to believe he could.
His minor league home run rate was just 6.1% in 471 innings. His upper minor league home run rate was 8.9% in 180.2 innings. Of course, that was against minor league hitting and without the effect of the juiced ball, but it gives some indication that the home run problem may have been just a blip on the radar. Indeed, his average exit velocity was 85.7 mph and his average home run distance was 394 feet. Those numbers don’t indicate that he’s a great pitcher, but they’re close enough to middle of the pack that maybe he was a tad unlucky on homers.
He was decidedly middle of the pack in terms of percentage of batted balls over 95 mph (33.3%) in a virtual tie with pitchers who didn’t struggle as much with the long ball like Luis Severino (14.0 HR/FB%), Jake Arrieta (14.0%), and Jeff Samardzija (13.8%). To be fair, he was also tied with Pineda, but that’s probably something to do with the right field fence at Yankee Stadium and Pineda’s right handedness.
He has one true weapon in his repertoire, and that’s his splitter. Hitters whiffed at 19.7% of his splitters, and it accounted for 64 of the 83 strikeouts as tracked by Brooks Baseball (Leiter had 84 on the season). I may sound like a broken record, but the problem with his splitter is that he also allowed 7 of his 18 home runs on it, and four of those were in two-strike counts. Any progression we could expect from Leiter starts with the splitter.
As that graph shows, when Leiter left his splitter up, it got rocked, but when it was below the zone, it was a serious weapon. If he could maintain the swing-and-miss in the pitch, while keeping it out of the heart of the plate, we might have something on our hands here. Mark Leiter Jr is far from a stud, but he might be an okay back-of-the-rotation pitcher.
That being said, he did not control his home runs this year, and he was basically replacement level. To be fair, that’s about what we should have expected.