This was supposed to be the final week of the state baseball tournament, where every game grows with importance leading up the championship contests at Michigan State University.
Had Portage Central advanced to MSU, much of the talk would have been about Luke Leto.
Leto, a junior shortstop and right-handed pitcher, is ranked among the top players in the nation for the 2021 class. He’s committed to LSU, but he could head straight to pro baseball after the 2021 MLB Draft.
Leto, who has a fastball in the low 90s, was heartbroken with not being able to play his junior year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was hard not having high school ball, so things will depend on this summer and then my senior year,” said Leto, who has grown to 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, running a 6.57 60. “I was really looking forward to playing. I’ve had to just find spots to hit, throw, that’s pretty much it. Usually, I just go up to the local field, but recently started to get some groups to go up and work out.
“I was really looking forward to playing. I feel my hitting is the strength of my game. I don’t hit for that much power, but I’ve been working on it. I’m really more of a line-drive hitter. I’ve played shortstop my whole life, it’s where the action is, and you are kind of in control of everything.”
Leto committed to LSU his freshman year.
“I played a lot of travel ball in Georgia and Florida, got LSU’s attention when I played for the USA national team,” Leto said. “Ever since I was a kid I liked LSU, so it was really an easy decision.”
Baseball American ranks Leto as the No. 3 player in the nation for 2021 while Perfect Game has him ranked No. 8.
Leto follows in a small but elite group of players from Michigan who seem destined for baseball stardom, including Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter of Kalamazoo Central and infielder DJ LeMahieu of Birmingham Brother Rice.
Of course, everyone knows all about Jeter, the 14-time All-Star and five-time World Series champion who had his No. 2 retired and was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2020.
LeMahieu helped LSU win a national championship before earning a National League batting title with the Rockies in 2016 with a .348 average. He arguably had his best season while playing for the Yankees last season when he started in the All-Star Game and won his first career Silver Slugger Award, hitting .327 with career highs in hits (197), runs (109), homers (26) and RBI (102).
No one is saying Leto will match the MLB success of Jeter or event LeMahieu, but it will be fun to follow Leto’s progress.
Mike Hinga coached Jeter for three years when Jeter played for the Kalamazoo Maroons as a teenager, then coached against LeMahieu’s A. Green summer team more than a dozen years ago.
Hinga is now coaching Leto this summer after having him play in multiple tournaments last year.
“LeMahieu and Jeter are two different players, but they both showed out very, very well and had projectability, and I would say that Luke is that kind of person, a Jeter and a LeMahieu,” Hinga said. “But, they are all their unique person, so you’re not trying to say he’s the next Derek Jeter because that’s unfair, because there is a Derek Jeter and there is a Luke Leto, and everybody develops at a different rate and a different ceiling.
“I can remember when LeMahieu played for A. Green, he was an extremely talented shortstop, just amazing, good pop in the bat, similar results to Jeter, a lot of pop, good range, good arm, and you can project if they’re going to be a good player, but might top out at Double-A. You can’t project how many Gold Gloves, Hall of Fame spot – you can’t project that out. But to say he’s like Jeter, he’s like LeMahieu, Luke does have that type of potential.”
Great player, great teammate
Leto hit .371 last season, but Hinga said he performs much better in national competition. The Maroons have already played in Troy, Ohio, and will play round-robin games in the Cincinnati area the next three weekends, then play in Atlanta and Nashville later this summer.
“High school pitching is not very good pitching,” Hinga said. “There’s not a lot of good fastballs, and no he can’t hit 68 mph curveballs and 72 mph fastballs. That’s why he lives on a national level, where he competes with the best in the country.
“He plays better against better competition, not because he plays harder, but because that’s more suited for the level of ball that’s he’s headed toward. He has excellent speed, he’s a very good hitter, has a lot of range as a fielder and has always played short.”
Hinga thought he would have Leto play for the Maroons for a few weekends in June, like in past years, but the pandemic halted plans with Leto’s national team. Leto will be playing in the Perfect Game showcase later this month in Hoover, Ala.
“The thing with Luke is he always has played on national teams, but this year obviously national teams aren’t there,” Hinga said. “He’s always played with us a few weekends at the start of summer before the national teams got going. It really made sense, but this year everything was up in the air for him so he’s going to play with us for as long as he wants to.”
Hinga said Leto is as good of a teammate as he is a player.
“He’s just the type of kid you love to have around,” Hinga said. “He’s very coachable. He’s a shortstop, but we ask him to play second base, play center field, so he can learn more about the game, where you’re working strategy and you’re looking for things. With his speed, try to encourage him to drop down a bunt once in a while, just so he can have it in his toolbox.
“It’s not like we go into a weekend with 12 kids. We bring 20, try to develop roles, get into situational things so they learn more about the game, because they’re all going to college.”
Said Leto: “I love playing for Coach Hinga; I’ve learned a lot. It just feels like every time I go play with them I learn something new that I can improve my game with.”
Portage Central coach Cory DeGroote has known Leto for a while.
“I’ve been watching Luke since he was 10,” DeGroote said. “He went from being a pudgy catcher to a kid who started growing, and he put in a lot of time in the cage, really dedicated himself to getting better when other kids were at the beach. He’s always played high-level baseball, done well in tournaments and has been with Team USA for the last three years.
“He’s just a really gifted athlete. He loves to compete, was an all-conference basketball player, now he plays quarterback and of course the kid is humble, not trying to big-time anybody. He loves his teammates and really values being around his teammates.
“He has a personality where he doesn’t get too high or too low. He’s able to kind of maintain a steady heart rate, which is the key. If you talk to any big leaguer, that’s the key, to keep yourself under control. He performs on the big stage because he doesn’t make it too big.”