Like a lot of boys in the Chicago area, Grant Leader grew up watching the Chicago Cubs.
Unlike many of his peers, he was fascinated by the pitchers, not the hitters.
“I always liked to watch the games, specifically the Cubs, when they were on television,” Leader said. “I always used to like watching the pitchers pitch because I thought it was interesting to see the counts and which pitches they would use on each count and the locations.
“When kid pitch arrived in Little League, I always wanted to try it, so me and my mom always practiced in the back yard.”
Thus was born a pitching career which Leader hopes will one day lead to him being on television.
The Lyons Township sophomore is the ace of a staff that has the Lions (20-4-1) thinking about a long run in the upcoming Class 4A playoffs.
Leader has a 5-0 record and a 0.89 earned-run average. In 31.1 innings he has allowed just four earned runs and 16 hits to go with 13 walks and 50 strikeouts.
That’s heady stuff in a sport where sophomores usually toil at the JV or sophomore level, but Leader isn’t shocked by his performance.
“I think in a way, yes, but being honest, I’m not that surprised because I’ve been preparing myself for a very long time in order to pitch in the way that I am right now,” Leader said. “I think with the preparation I’ve done, it’s been a nice transition into the successes.”
Leader, who began pitching when he was 7, was elevated to varsity late last season and moved into the rotation during the summer league season.
Since then he has impressed his teammates and frustrated hitters with an impressive repertoire highlighted by a fastball that can hit 91 and is consistently in the high 80s. He also throws a curveball, change-up and slider with good command of each.
“(The key) is his ability to throw strikes and be consistent,” LTHS catcher Justin Williams said. “Obviously the speed is a big thing. That’s what sets him apart at first, but to really capitalize on that, to get the most out of what he has, it’s his ability to throw strikes, not only with the fastball but with the off-speed pitches.”
The surprising thing about Leader is his size. At 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, he doesn’t fit the profile of the prototypical power pitcher. Yet he throws as hard as any high schooler in the area.
“I think the main thing that helps me is I have very strong legs,” Leader said. “I generate most of my power from my lower half and also I do exercises every day to help keep my arm stretched out and strengthened.
“It definitely does (take pressure off his arm).”
Leader does well to shrug off pressure. He allowed two runs in the first inning of a May 8 game against York when a grounder took a bad hop and went off the shortstop’s glove, but went on to pitch three innings to get the win in the Lions’ 14-2, five-inning victory.
LTHS coach Kevin Diete said Leader has good poise, even in tough situations.
“He does and I think that’s his confidence showing through,” Diete said. “He throws strikes and gets outs. That’s all he has to do.
“He’s performed very well on the mound for us and hopefully he will continue to do so throughout this year and the next two years.”
Despite his age, Leader has adjusted seamlessly to the varsity level. He threw a no-hitter against Oak Park and River Forest last month, an unheard of feat for a sophomore.
“He was up at the end of last year and he had a good couple outings, approaches the game the right way,” Williams said. “He’s focused, very disciplined and knows how to enjoy baseball the right way.
“He’s already better, obviously, than most guys out here at this point. I got to catch the no-hitter against OPRF and that was fun.
“It’s going to be exciting to see how he does in the next two years and continues to develop.”
If he can avoid the arm troubles that befell classmate Michael Walsh, who is sitting out this season with an elbow injury, Leader figures to have a long career ahead of him.
Leader already has committed to Illinois.
“All of the kids in school are like, ‘oh, you’ve got all the stress of college taken away from you,'” Leader said. “I’m like, ‘not really, I just have my stress on the front end and a lot more of it than you guys.”
Though he won’t have to decide on a major for another three years, Leader is thinking of studying economics. That doesn’t mean he will, of course, and given the economics of baseball, he might not even enroll at Illinois.
“My ultimate goal is to play in the major leagues and my short-term goal is to get drafted out of high school,” Leader said. “If it’s a top-2 round pick, then I’ll likely sign, but if not I’ll just get my education at the University of Illinois.”