Earlier this week, Vanderbilt University’s Jack Leiter — one of the best prospects in this year’s MLB Draft and son of the former Yankee pitcher Al — threw a no-hitter, striking out 16 batters and retiring 27 straight after giving up a leadoff walk to begin the first inning. It was an absolutely lights-out performance, one that earned comparisons to the performance of former Yankees ace Roger Clemens, with his coach saying:
I think the fastball is what separates him. You can put a velocity number on it, whether it’s 95, 96 [mph]. But you’ve seen guys in the past, whether it’s [Roger] Clemens or [Curt] Schilling, they have a fastball that just jumps up on the hitter — and his does.
Clemens, however, is not the only pitcher who has donned the pinstripes that Leiter should remind Yankees fans of; his story, in many ways, bears a lot of similarities to that of current Yankees ace Gerrit Cole.
At this point, Cole’s story is rather well-known. With the 28th pick of the 2008 MLB Draft, the Yankees selected Cole out of Orange Lutheran High School, despite a commitment to play for the UCLA, a prestigious program that has churned out numerous Major Leaguers, including Jackie Robinson. Although the Yankees were preparing to offer a $4 million signing bonus and Cole had Scott Boras as his agent, there was never a negotiation, and Brian Cashman missed out on his “white whale” for the first time.
Leiter, similarly, was selected by the Yankees in the 2019 draft, albeit with a much lower pick (20th round). This was not, however, due to talent, but rather his strong commitment to Vanderbilt, which led to Leiter informing teams not to draft him despite the fact that even then, he would probably have been a top-10 pick. Even so, the Yankees took a chance anyway, hoping that they could convince him otherwise, with Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ vice president of domestic amateur scouting, saying, “In the 20th round, Jack was obviously the best player on the board. I know his deep commitment to Vanderbilt, but there’s always a percentage chance that something could happen.”
Although their college careers had very different trajectories, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling the 2020 season, there are nonetheless similarities. Both played for colleges known for producing Major League talent in recent years: UCLA counts among its recent alumni Troy Glaus, Chase Utley, Dave Roberts, Ben Francisco (of 2013 Yankees fame), David Huff (of lesser 2013 Yankees fame), and Trevor Bauer (hey, we’re not talking about them as people, only as baseball players), while Vanderbilt has among its ranks David Price, Mark Prior, Sonny Gray, Walker Buehler, Dansby Swanson, Mike Minor, and Mike Yastrzemski, among others. Furthermore, just as Cole had Bauer as a co-ace who was picked only two picks after him in the 2011 MLB Draft, Leiter has a co-ace at Vanderbilt, Kumar Rocker, who is projected to be this year’s first overall pick.
In a remarkable twist of events, the same team at the top of the 2011 draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates, have the first overall pick in this coming draft, exactly ten years later. Although it is expected that Rocker will be taken with this pick, leaving Leiter to fall to the Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers, or (please no!) Boston Red Sox, the possibility still exists for yet another parallel between these two pitchers.
The stories for both Cole and Leiter are far from complete, and there are still many opportunities for them to either converge further or branch off in separate directions. If Leiter is as good as advertised, however, then Yankees fans will certainly be hoping that he continues to follow in Cole’s footsteps, and ultimately finds himself on the mound at Yankee Stadium, in the pinstripes that his father once wore.