LONG STORY SPORT

ONE FAN'S JOURNEY THROUGH THE SPORTS WORLD

Kumar Rocker: Remember the Name

Just a couple days ago, I came on here to shine a small spotlight on Vanderbilt starting pitcher Jack Leiter, a player who's quickly become one of college baseball's most highly rated prospects heading into the 2021 MLB Draft. The 20-year-old ace-in-the-making has been impressing scouts for a number of years now, but it wasn't until earlier this month when I started to follow the college game that he finally made it onto my radar. It didn't hurt that as I made this decision, he went and threw one of the most statistically impressive no-hitters that I can recall, where he struck out 16 batters and threw 124 pitches.


Nevertheless, discovering Leiter for myself has served two important purposes.

  1. It's made me excited to watch the MLB Draft for the first time in my life

  2. It's propelled me to try and find other collegiate prospects on the rise

And that search for another college prospect to highlight on this blog didn't last all that long, because as Leiter was dissecting South Carolina's lineup last week, today's subject was sitting in the Vanderbilt clubhouse, witnessing his teammate make history. Today's subject is fellow Vanderbilt starting pitcher Kumar Rocker, a player who might very well be a more dominant pitching prospect than his teammate.


AP Photo/Wade Payne

Just like with Leiter, Kumar Rocker has long been earmarked for success in professional baseball. Back in 2018, a few months after he graduated from high school, Rocker was selected in the 38th round of the MLB Draft by the Colorado Rockies. Instead of signing on the dotted line right then and there, he decided to continue his amateur baseball career at Vanderbilt University, a school that has a history of churning out major league ready starting pitchers in the past. Guys like David Price, Sonny Gray, and Walker Buehler all previously donned the black and gold and have all found success in the majors.


Rocker became an instant fan favorite at Vandy during his freshman season in 2019. On the statistics side, he impressed with a 12-5 record, a 3.25 ERA, and 114 strikeouts over 99 and 2/3rds innings during the regular season. He quickly became not only one of the best pitchers at Vandy, but in the entire SEC.


Rocker's Freshman campaign went from memorable to historic when during a game against Duke in the Super Regionals of that year's College World Series tournament, he became the first to ever complete a no-hitter at the stage. A day after his team lost the first game of a three game series against the Blue Devils, the 19-year-old pitched what some have since called the best pitched game in college baseball history. While that might be a tad hyperbolic, I'd be hard pressed to find a better one given his stat line at the end of the night. Not even Leiter's no-no from last week could hold a candle to this one.


Over the course of nine absolutely scintillating innings, a college baseball player became the educator, teaching pitchers at all levels how to totally manhandle an entire lineup with top of the line accuracy on his two chief pitches; a fastball and a slider. During a game where failure meant elimination, Rocker struck out 19 BATTERS, which currently stands as the most a Vanderbilt pitcher has ever had in a single game, and threw a whopping 131 pitches, something that almost never happens in the modern era.


Vanderbilt used the momentum from that performance to propel themselves not only to defeat Duke in a deciding Game 3, but all the way to a College World Series Championship. For his efforts, Rocker was awarded the 2019 College World Series Most Outstanding Player award, an honor that has also been bestowed to guys like Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield (1973), and was named Baseball America's Freshman of the Year.



Rocker's dominance at the collegiate level can largely be attributed to his fantastic pitch repertoire. Starting with his fastball, Rocker has shown the capability to hurl this pitch at speeds around 95 to 99 miles per hour and also shift the ball so that it bites with some late vertical movement, making the pitch even more of a task to swipe at.


The only potential issue with his heater is that he sometimes has issues with placing it where it needs to be. That isn't to say he isn't accurate, per se, it's mostly that the pitch can be a tad unwieldy at times. Case in point, while Rocker is one of college baseball's best at striking out hitters, he also can throw a few more walks than you might want. After his Freshman year where he averaged 1.9 walks per nine innings, which is a solid number, his walks per nine ballooned up to 4.8 in 2020 and currently rests at 2.9 in 2021. If he is to reach that next level and become a potential ace in a major league rotation, he's going to need to improve this mark.


Moving on, Rocker's slider could very well be the best performed pitch in college baseball right now. People like Rob Friedman, AKA The Pitching Ninja, have sworn by Rocker's slider for quite a while now, and it's not too hard to see why. Explaining it, however, is another task entirely. Now I'm not going to pretend to understand the intricate details as to how the pitch moves the way that it does, but all I know is that the resulting movement that it makes once it leaves Rocker's hand is absolutely fantastic. There are few sliders in the big leagues that look as well developed as Rocker's.



Not to be outdone with one really excellent pitch in his holster, Rocker recently added a tremendous cutter that sits right in the middle between his fastball and slider. It features a similar bite to the slider, but it goes a few notches faster. While he's only recently started utilizing this pitch, he's already had great results with it in 2021 if this tweet is anything to go by.


For the sake of rounding out his entire repertoire, it's perhaps appropriate to also mention that Rocker also has a changeup, and apparently also a curveball, but it seems to me that those two pitches are either rarely utilized or are still in some sort of development. You'll definitely see the changeup a few times per game, but there's not much to say at this stage except it's a nice pitch to use to keep the batter guessing. Who's to say that in a few years these pitches also become reliable weapons in his bag?


With just a few more months to go until the start of the MLB Draft, I think one of the most interesting stories to watch will be the competition between Rocker and Leiter for that number one pick slot. While there are other players from across the country who could make a run for it, I'd be surprised if the Pirates don't pick between the two Vandy wunderkinds. I have no idea who deserves to be selected first between the two, but I've truly had a great time getting to know these prospects. Whoever the Bucs pick on July 12th will almost certainly become a long term starter in the major leagues and possibly a star in the future.


If you have any time to watch some of college baseball this Spring, be sure to be on the lookout for whenever either of these guys pitch. Because you could be watching history in the making.

Featured Image - AP Photo/Wade Payne


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