Mark Leiter’s job this spring relied on a pair of shaky knees.
Not his own, mind you; those supporting the torso of Zach Eflin, the young starter who’d mentioned, after throwing two complete game shutouts as a rookie in 2016 and creating at least a conversation about his future in the rotation, that oh yeah, he’d been experiencing chronic lower joint pain his entire life. So a pair of surgeries later, Eflin’s knees were corrected, but the Phillies didn’t want to put too much pressure on him. If Eflin were to begin the season on the AAA disabled list, then that meant a job for somebody on the IronPigs rotation. That somebody was going to be Alec Asher or Mark Leiter.
On a rebuilding team, every creates an audition. Eflin did start the year out of commission, but following only two AAA appearances, Leiter was bumped up to Philadelphia on April 18 into Howie Kendrick’s spot on the roster after the veteran’s first trip to the DL. Given a chance thanks to a shortage of hurlers, Leiter found some daylight on the Phillies roster, made some space, and settled in, while Asher had been sent to the Orioles.
The day Asher was traded, Leiter told reporters that, with his fluid roleplaying and five-pitch arsenal, he saw himself taking on anything the Phillies needed. That’s the attitude you’re going to hear from any 26-year-old trying to break camp with the big club, but he was exactly the sort of asset the Phillies needed to stitch together a pitching staff: Get out there and push the season forward, one frame at a time. Which is exactly how Leiter viewed things, as well, saying that his philosophy was to trust his catcher (he expressed an affinity for IronPigs backstop Logan Moore in the spring), and enter every inning with a closer’s mentality.
And so, the big league season began for the Toms River native. And everything was terrible.
He had the unpursued role of sweaty, long-relief, mop-up guy, and the back of his jersey became synonymous with losses. His May ERA was 5.74 after facing 69 batters, and Leiter would not appear in a game the Phillies would win until June 23 (In games in which Leiter appeared this season, the Phillies were 5-22).
By August, he was making history.
“A long-relief outing for the ages,” it was called, as the media turned the spotlight onto a role in baseball typically left in the dark.
There are grounds crew members trapped under a tarp that have gotten more screen time than long relievers. But, there Leiter was on August 5, throwing 4.1 innings while the gassed bullpen wearily chugged energy drinks. He gave them the cover they needed after Nick Pivetta got shelled for eight runs early by the Rockies, and Leiter walked no one, gave up only two singles, and struck out nine. Next up, it was a 10-0 hammering by the Giants (????) in which he threw 5 innings, allowed four hits, only one run, no walks, and seven strikeouts.
Then they began giving him starts. In desperate need of arm meat for the season to devour, the Phillies stuck Leiter out there and he made a string five or six-inning starts in which high early pitch counts saw him get the early hook; the same type of starts the Phillies were getting from their pitchers all year. The stretch was not without its anomalies; Leiter threw seven shut-out innings against the Marlins on August 23 in an 8-0 win that saw his ERA dip under 4.00 for the first time in two months. On September 4, the Mets pounded him until he was just a hat on dirt, in a start that featured a six-run bottom of the fourth before Leiter was removed after only 3.1 innings.
Leiter finished things up with an 8.3 SO/9, 2.71 SO/W and an ERA pressing right up against 5.00. And his contributions didn’t end there!
He will not be the 2018 Opening Day starter. He will probably not ever be an opening day starter.
What is his future? Well, mean as it sounds, barring a vast leap in skill, the whole idea of this rebuild is to make it less and less necessary for guys like Leiter to have to pitch. Hopefully, the Phillies will have a rotation of Aaron Nola, some rehabilitated currently struggling young farm hands, and some cool free agents. The only way to get a job on this team would be for Leiter to make as strong of an impression as he could in a thankless, overlooked role that principally took place after people had turned the game off.
Finding and sustaining success like he saw for a few stretches and spurts in 2017 would be nice, but a pitcher who is supposed to fill a bunch of roles and throw every kind of pitch is sacrificing effectiveness for versatility. Leiter’s place will always be determined by other players’ knees, elbows, and shoulders. If he’s in the Phillies rotation, then they are still a work in progress.
But regardless of his MLB future, Leiter has already been immortalized among the hunched, sleeping bodies at his alma mater, New Jersey Institute of Technology.