By Matt Williams
Jack Leathersich is a straight shooter, and he’s not making any excuses about his second half pitching for Triple-A Las Vegas this summer.
The 23-year-old lefty from Beverly wasn’t happy with himself — and he plans to get better.
If you look solely at earned run average, you can see why. Leathersich’s was 7.76 in 28 appearances for the 51’s after he was promoted to Triple-A for the first time in his three-year professional career in July.
“I got in a rut, the first time in my professional career that’s happened,” Leathersich said last week. “I’m not going to lie; it’s tough not to get down on yourself. I think I did a good job of staying positive. There are lots of ups and downs in baseball.”
Home on the North Shore after the 51’s wrapped up their season, Leathersich is unwinding by playing golf and will be working out at Cressy Performance in Hudson. He knows that being one step away from Major League Baseball at his age is an accomplishment.
“It feels great to be home after a long season, going at it for eighth months,” Leathersich said. “I have one goal in mind and that’s helping the team, then getting to the big leagues.”
A left-handed reliever, Leathersich was the No. 22 prospect in the New York Mets’ system according to Baseball America heading into the 2012 season. He’s likely moving up after dazzling showing this past season at Double-A Binghamton, N.Y., where he struck out nearly 17 batters per nine innings.
In Double-A, the Beverly High and UMass-Lowell product gave up 19 hits in 29 1/3 innings, which led to a July assignment to Triple-A Las Vegas. The differences between the levels of the minor leagues were evident immediately.
“My first outing, we got off the plane at 6 p.m. I come in and the first batter is (Major League second baseman and former No. 2 overall draft choice) Dustin Ackley. Then it’s (Seattle regular) Justin Smoak,” Leathersich recalled.
“It’s just crazy. I got some outs and it was awesome, but being as young as I am, I’m playing against guys I’ve watched on TV.”
Using walks as motivation
Generally, hitters in Triple-A are more mature than the raw prospects at the Double-A level. They’re more experienced, a good number of them have played in the big leagues at one time or another, and are patient at the plate.
“It’s a much more mature game,” said Leathersich. “It’s a cleaner version of baseball. The strike zone is tighter and you can’t get behind hitters. If you get in a 2-0 count and lay it in there, they’ll rip it because they’re looking for it.”
Walks hurt Leathersich more than anything in his first go-around in Vegas. He issued 29 free passes, nearly double the rate at which he was walking batters in Double-A. His batting average against was good (.278), but having extra men on due to those walks was troublesome.
“I have to get that down. When you walk guys, they punish you,” said Leathersich, who admittedly took some time to adjust mentally when things weren’t going his way. After dominating for much of the previous 2 1/2 years of his professional career, that’s perfectly understandable.
Baseball’s an unforgiving grind of a game, and every pro — look no further than the Red Sox’ own Jon Lester or John Lackey — goes through it.
“The best players in the world struggle for months at a time. It’s hard, and this was the first time for me. I learned a lot,” Leathersich said.
“Your mind starts racing a little bit, and the last place you want to try to figure stuff out is Triple-A baseball. As a reliever, you’re expected to be ready every night. I never stopped working and I feel like things will always turn around. I’ll use that last month as motivation for the offseason.”
Mastering the mental side
For the offseason, Leathersich plans to fine tune his mechanics. His fastball is quick and it’s live, though he’d like to have slightly better command at the next level. He’d also like to develop his secondary pitches, as the ability to go off-speed for a strike when he’s behind in the count will prevent good hitters from sitting on the heater.
“I have no doubt in my stuff,” he said. “I need to polish some things up; it’s all about getting ahead of hitters. If you look at all the great pitchers: (Justin) Verlander, (Clayton) Kershaw, whoever, they’re always getting ahead in the count.”
Being near the West Coast was different for Leathersich as well. The 51’s, cleverly named after the famed Area 51 of alien conspiracy theory fame, play in one of the unique locales in the minors.
“It’s 120 degrees every day and the ball flies. It’s like pitching on the moon,” Leathersich said. “The Triple-A lifestyle is nice. There are no buses and we flew almost everywhere. It felt pretty good.”
Leathersich had a positive exit interview with Las Vegas brass after the season and is looking forward to getting back at it in 2014. He got some buzz from the New York press early in the summer as the Mets look to turn things around at the major league level, and he’s taken what could be new found fame once he hits Gotham in stride.
“When it’s going good it’s great and once it turns, which it will for everybody, it might not be. I realize that,” said Leathersich. “There’s not one guy that cruised through the minors and never went through this.
“Baseball is a tough game. It’s not like hockey or football where you can go out there and hustle or hit someone and make some plays. It’s all mental in baseball.”
A fifth-round draft choice in 2011, Leathersich certainly has the mental makeup to bounce back; that makes him an idea bullpen candidate.
He looks at 2013 as a whole, not a snippet of a few tough outings. He’s one of the first members of his draft class to get to Triple-A and is still growing and getting better.
“It was an awesome learning experience,” he said. “I was inconsisent, but there’s no doubt in my mind I can get these guys out. Things are set up perfectly for next year. Hopefully I’ll get a run at the big league camp — and we’ll see what happens from there.”