Gainesville, Fla. — Two celebrity college pitchers showcased their skills last weekend during a pair of evening baseball games. The setting, pastoral and even radiant, might have been more impressive than those men on the mound.
Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, each wearing Vanderbilt garb, appeared Friday and Saturday nights at a new, $65 million beige-and-brick beauty of a baseball facility known as Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field on the University of Florida’s grounds.
There was a sun dipping in the west as first pitches were thrown both nights. Blankets and bodies were spread picnic-style across a grassy berm that extends from third base past left field. Spaced appropriately through the orange-and-blue seats (Florida Gators colors, of course), including those seats that remind you of the old upper-deck intimacy at Tiger Stadium, were fans reuniting with college baseball a year after COVID canceled 2020’s calendar.
Spaced also throughout those section rows, with radar guns and laptops taking in all the vital data, were scouts, including at least one from the Tigers cast of amateur-baseball bird dogs.
The Tigers, of course, have an interest in both Rocker and Leiter. The Tigers pick third overall in July’s MLB Draft. This puts them within possible range of two starters, both right-handed, who in eight weeks could become the first college players from the same team to be drafted 1 and 2, overall.
There was Rocker on Friday night, all 6-foot-5, 245 sleek pounds of him, wheeling his fastball at 94, 95, as high as 96, interspersed by a slider that has become a major enticement for scouts. Rocker threw 95 pitches, 49 of them strikes, in five innings of a four-hour game Vanderbilt won, 11-7. Fastball command, as evidenced by those strikes-balls splits, is one reason Rocker this season has been judged to be a tick, and only a tick, behind his teammate.
Leiter is different, in part because he is closer to 6 feet than his listed 6-1 and weighs 205. Leiter has more fastball command — most of the time. He topped out at 97 in a Saturday game where Leiter seemed to be represented by an impostor, at least compared with some earlier, near-immaculate 2021 starts. A pitcher so dominant that he did not allow a hit in two consecutive March games for the Commodores, was plainly mortal Saturday: four innings, five hits, three of which were home runs; five earned runs, four walks, four strikeouts.
Scouts are keeping quiet, as scouts do while taking their proprietary notes, but not a lot of big-league front offices appear bothered by anything Leiter — or Rocker — displayed last weekend.
And yet this draft debate regarding the two is earnest and irresistible.
Rocker entered 2021 as college baseball’s supposed top gun — a wondrous combination of size and dynamism.
Leiter was right there, but still a consensus second-chair to Rocker. Then, the 2021 schedule began and a flip-flop in status followed. Leiter was pitching with more fastball fury and better results. Rocker seemed to be a half-gear behind.
Now, scouts are at least wondering how this cordial, same-school duel between two aces might evolve during the season’s closing weeks.
Leiter’s situation is slightly more complicated. He is only a sophomore.
Given that last season was a wipeout, he has pitched a combined 74⅔ innings spanning his senior year in high school (Delbarton, Morristown, New Jersey) and his COVID-crushed freshman year at Vandy. His brief, rather stressed evening Saturday at Gainesville pushed his 2021 workload to 64⅓ innings.
A natural adjustment to a longer season and to added innings is hardly ominous, and pretty much to be expected, which was this week’s take from head coach Tim Corbin, architect of the Vanderbilt baseball colossus that has won two national championships in the past seven years.
“You have to understand he’s still a sophomore in nature,” Corbin said during a Wednesday media session, speaking of a pitcher whose ERA after Saturday’s jarring is 2.10, with a .128 opposing batting average, with 106 strikeouts and 29 walks in those 64-plus innings. “You’re still granted the opportunity to be a sophomore.”
Corbin continued, using former Vandy stars like Sonny Gray, and David Price — who had a prime-time run with the Tigers — as examples of why neither he, nor from what can be gleaned, scouts are terribly concerned about Leiter.
“Sonny went through this,” Corbin said of Leiter’s last three starts, which weren’t as hitter-obliterating as his earlier work. “David Price went through this. It’s going to be beneficial to him as he goes through it.”
Rocker, on the other hand, appears to be using all that heft and past experience as fuel for a recent run of stronger starts.
What the Tigers make of Vandy’s venerable pair, in detail, is being kept top secret. There is a general view the Tigers don’t mind sharing, which was explained this week in a text from Scott Pleis, the Tigers director of amateur scouting, who also said the Tigers were “still a long way off with the draft being pushed back” to a July 11 start from its traditional June staging.
“I can tell you that we’ve seen both Leiter and Rocker since high school,” Pleis wrote, “so we have scouted them extensively and have a good history with both.”
Beyond any secure and diplomatic overviews of Leiter and Rocker, it is known the Tigers (officially) subscribe to the old best-player-available mantra in explaining their draft philosophy.
Unofficially, it is known also the Tigers have two primary needs:
A first to-do task is getting bats, given the woeful condition of this team’s offense and the current state of their farm-team hitters, which only recently has gotten a boost from the draft and from Latin America.
A second objective, unquestionably less rigid, is to get as much help as possible as quickly to Detroit as a rebuild hits its long-awaited delivery date, for better or for worse.
In that latter context, either Leiter or Rocker would seemingly be ideal as heavy artillery pieces ready to be wielded probably no later than 2023. A prep star, of any flavor, would be lucky to be at Comerica Park before 2025, or late 2024.
But back to that matter of offense. Back to the reality there is no surefire Tigers answer at shortstop, either in Detroit or on the farm. Back to reasons the Leiter-Rocker debate might be incidental to Detroit’s draft-day decision.
The Tigers would appear — a word to be used advisedly, for sure — more enthused about choosing, say, California prep shortstop Marcelo Mayer. He has the skill-set an organization so deeply needs in its makeover.
It must also be remembered this is baseball. Guarantees — college or prep star, pitcher or hitter — aren’t part of the bargain between a game and its talent snoops.
And so the Tigers continue to inspect each week the land’s top young prizes, especially when they can’t be sure what their competition at the top might do.
The Pirates pick first in July and are being hyper-protective of their plans. Same with the Rangers, even though Mayer’s top rival at shortstop, Jordan Lawlar of Dallas Jesuit High, is in the Rangers’ immediate radius and is believed to be high, indeed, on Texas’ wish list.
In the blood
Of appeal to scouts as they study Leiter and Rocker are their bloodlines.
Leiter’s dad, Al, pitched 19 seasons in the big leagues and now works as a MLB Network analyst. Leiter’s uncle, Mark, worked 11 years in the majors, including three seasons with the Tigers. Then there is Mark Leiter, Jr., who is Jack’s cousin and who now pitches for Double-A Erie.
It isn’t to be overly considered, baseball DNA, but it helps explain a pitcher’s evolution and, perhaps, his potential.
Rocker’s genes are sourced in another professional sport: football. Tracy Rocker played for Washington during two NFL seasons. He has since coached the past 20 years — high school, college, and in the NFL, and now supervises defensive linemen for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Kumar Rocker, in his physique, snorts football presence on a pitcher’s mound. In his personal manner, revealed during a Zoom interview, he is smooth and spare with his words. He has about him a brand of professional-grade polish. It is no surprise Vanderbilt, an Ivy League-grade haven, lured him anymore than it is news that Vandy was able to land Leiter following his days at the swank college-preparatory school, Delbarton.
Leiter is a bit more loquacious than Rocker. He speaks in more detail. He also has loads of Al’s telegenic luster, right down to a head of dark-brown hair straight from Hollywood.
Neither player has anything to say about the Tigers. Nor about the Pirates. Nor about the Rangers. As is customary for high-profile draft picks, they have been ordered, groomed, schooled, and all but warned, to remove MLB towns and teams from their spoken words.
They also know this:
Unless either gets hurt during these next two months, they are in for heavy paydays, perhaps to the tune of $8 million-plus should they in fact go 1-2 in July’s sweepstakes.
Rocker has such cachet that he is represented by celebrity agent Scott Boras, who is not known for offering discounts. Neither, is it believed, will Excel Sports Management be cutting much slack, not that a team drafting either pitcher will be expecting much mercy with respect to dollars.
‘Keep things light’
What it will come down to, as always, is perceived value — the capacity to help a big-league team win during long seasons and push its way deep into October’s playoffs.
In that context, Rocker is having quite an arm-wrestling bout with his buddy, Leiter. Rocker’s numbers are right there with Leiter in gallantry: 11 games, 1.70 ERA, 69 innings, 36 hits, 97 strikeouts, 19 walks, .149 opposing batting average.
“I talk more about their personalities,” Corbin said during Wednesday’s conversation, sidestepping any raw pitching analysis. “I like talking about them as people rather than talents.
“I enjoy the traits of Kumar — I’m going to miss him so much. Love the kid, how he competes, how he sells out for his teammates, how he treats them. This kid is on, every pitch.”
As for Leiter:
“I love Jack’s nature,” Corbin said. “He’s like an old soul in so many ways. It’s how he was raised, so calm.
“They’re good players, no doubt about that, but I just take the road that I like to talk about them, personally.”
It is the clinically safe route for a head coach when it comes to comparisons.
The pitchers don’t get terribly introspective when asked about their 2021 seasons, much less about possibilities in July.
Rocker has admitted seeing the usual social-media chatter about where he might be picked, beginning with the Pirates.
“Those mentions — they pop up on the (cell) phone,” he said. “It’s fun to see.”
Leiter gets a tad more analytical about his pitching mechanics, speaking of vertical index on his fastball, which is an upper-strike-zone killer. Otherwise, he opts for talking about broader, more personal aspects of his time at Vanderbilt.
“We have an expectation set for us here to not act older than we are,” he said, meaning time must be spent, developing and in enjoying brief years at a college so revered. “This is where memories are made, where performances on the field are elevated.
“It’s the culture pushed upon us right when we get here.”
Rocker is aboard there. He and Leiter are friends. They talk and team up between starts, sharing strategies about pitch selection. Sometimes they talk about things that have nothing to do with baseball.
“When are we going to play golf during the week?” Rocker said, quoting an oft-asked question the two sometimes throw at each other.
“We like to keep things light.”
That’s their public stance, of course. Deep within, they know what those scouts know as they flock to Vanderbilt’s games, home and away, monitoring two extraordinary athletes and teammates.
They are about to affect the MLB Draft in dramatic fashion. They will be expected to do the same for whichever teams pick them, including, possibly, one from Detroit.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.
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