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Draft profile: Kumar Rocker

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With their first selection in the 2021 draft, the Mets selected Kumar Rocker, a right-handed pitcher from Georgia.

Kumar Rocker is a second-generation athlete. His father is Tracy Quinton Rocker, a two-time All-American and a three-time All-SEC selection while playing at Auburn who was selected in the third round of the 1989 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins and played professionally for them for two seasons before transitioning to coaching. His uncle is David Deaundra Rocker, who also played at Auburn and played professionally for the Los Angeles Rams for four years. Kumar, whose mother, Lalitha, is originally from India, inherited their athletic genes, did not follow in their footsteps. He played both football and baseball when he enrolled at North Oconee High School in Bogart, Georgia, but stopped playing football, which he lettered in twice, completely by his junior year of high school. By then, his skill as a pitcher really began shining through. He entered high school with a fastball that touched the high-80s and it continued improving and improving and improving, and by the time he began focusing only on baseball, the pitch sat in the low-to-mid-90s and regularly touched the high-90s. His secondary pitches began developing. He grew physically, turning into an impressive 6’5”, 245-pound specimen.

By the end of the 2018 season, the right-hander was considered not only one of the best prep pitchers available in the 2018 MLB Draft, but one of the best players available, period. He had a strong commitment to Vanderbilt and was passed over as a result. The Colorado Rockies drafted him in the 38th round of the 2018 MLB Draft, 1,146th overall, anyway, but negotiations between the two sides were virtually non-existent and Rocker attended Vanderbilt as planned.

Rocker was expected to be an excellent pitcher, but he performed better than anybody could have imagined in his first year with the Commodores. Appearing in 19 games for Vanderbilt and starting 16 of them, he posted a 3.25 ERA in 99.2 innings, allowing 88 hits, walking 21, and striking out 114. His first few appearances in the NCAA were not bad per se, but he really started gaining momentum in his second half, posting a 2.17 ERA in his last 11 starts, striking out 82 in 70.2 innings. His dominance continued into the NCAA tournament- a big reason Vanderbilt won the 2019 College World Series- and on June 8, Rocker made history. Pitching against Duke, he became the first pitcher in NCAA history to throw a no-hitter in the Super Regional round of the 2019 NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament, striking out 19 batters in the Commodores’ 3-0 victory. A few days later, he set another record, recording 11 strikeouts in the College World Series finals against Michigan. Deservingly, Rocker won a plethora of awards and was announced to various honorary teams.

The right-hander returned to Vanderbilt in 2020 and the reigning and defending champions seemed to be supercharged, as Rocker was now joined in the rotation by Jack Leiter, the son of Al Leiter and an incredibly talented pitcher in his own right, who passed on going pro in the 2019 MLB Draft in order to play for the Commodores. The two seemed poised to form one of, if not the, most fearsome twosomes in NCAA baseball, but fate would unfortunately have other plans. Rocker and Leiter got off to strong starts, but COVID-19 prompted the NCAA to cancel the 2020 collegiate baseball season. Rocker ended up only pitching in three games, posting a 1.80 ERA in 15.0 innings with 6 hits allowed, 8 walks, and 28 strikeouts.

Rocker returned to Vanderbilt in 2021 and was finally able to form the fearsome twosome along with Leiter than many had been dreaming of since the latter enrolled at the school. The two pitched as advertised and for brief periods of time, both were considered to be the best draft prospects available in the 2021 MLB Draft, jumping over others and occasionally flip-flopping over each other. The right-hander came out of the gate with the best fastball velocity of his career early on, sitting in the mid-to-high-90s and occasionally flirting with triple-digits, but roughly a month into the 2021 collegiate season, red flags began appearing. Though his numbers did not take a hit, as Rocker was an excellent overall pitcher with multiple weapons, his fastball velocity began falling precariously. In late March through early April, his fastball was averaging in the low-90s. It recovered some velocity in late April, but by the beginning of May, it was sitting in the low-90s again. The reduced velocity did not impact him much, as Rocker posted a 2.73 ERA in 122.0 innings in his junior year, allowing 75 hits, walking 37, and striking out 179. Rocker took the mound in the deciding game three of the 2021 College World Series that saw the Commodores defending against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, but the right-hander had an uncharacteristic outing, allowing five runs- four earned- in four-plus innings in what seemingly would be the last time he took the mound for Vandy. Despite the loss and unfortunate ending for him, Rocker was once again awarded with various accolades and named to various honorary teams, including being named a 2021 Golden Spikes Award finalist as well as a being named a Dick Howser Trophy finalist.

At 6’5”, 245-pounds, Rocker has an ideal frame for pitching. His mechanics are clean, with an over-the-head windup, clean arm action through the back, and balanced follow through. He repeats his release point well and is able to hold it through long starts. He occasionally loses command of his fastball and his other pitches suffer as they all tunnel very well from it, but Rocker has an exceptional arsenal that allows him to succeed even when he loses the feel of any of his other pitches.

Rocker’s fastball is an above-average pitch when it is at its best, not just possessing exceptional velocity but possessing plenty of run and sink as well. As mentioned, his fastball velocity has not been consistent throughout the 2021 season, but even when his velocity is down, the pitch still is difficult to hit thanks to the extension that he gets on the pitch and its perceived velocity thanks to that extension and the pitch’s spin rate, which generally sits at 2,250 RPM. The pitch does not get too many swings-and-misses on its own, but that is partially by design, as Rocker uses it to get ahead in the count and set up his slider.

The slider is an easy plus pitch, widely considered by many scouts and evaluators to be the best slider in the 2021 draft class. The pitch, which sits in the mid-to-high-80s, features late downward bite. It has a similar trajectory as a curveball, with more vertical break than horizontal movement, and thanks to the way it spins, does not start breaking until it is deep in the zone, making it difficult for hitters to recognize and react to. The pitch tunnels extremely well with his fastball and is his primary strikeout pitch.

Rocker almost exclusively throws his fastball-slider but he also has a changeup and curveball in his back pocket as well. Neither pitch are as advanced as his bread-and-butter pitches, but both have potential. The changeup lacks consistency but flashes average and should become an average pitch with more use and additional refinement. It sits in the mid-to-high-80s and features a low spin rate, giving it vertical tumble. Like his slider, Rocker’s changeup tunnels well with his fastball. Rounding out his arsenal is his curveball, a low-80s pitch similar to his slider but with more vertical break. He does not utilize the pitch much, and like his changeup, might develop further with more use. It also tunnels well with his fastball and elicits a high number of strikes for the relatively small amount of usage it gets.