Pair of aces: Vandy Boys Kumar Rocker, Jack Leiter chase baseball history in 2021
No college baseball duo has been drafted No. 1 and No. 2 overall in the same draft. Vandy Boys Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter have a chance to change that — and bring Vanderbilt another College World Series title.
Baseball pitching aces sometimes come in pairs. Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
And now Kumar and Jack.
It’s not exactly a secret that Vanderbilt baseball is every bit as loaded as any athletic program in any collegiate sport. But despite years of success, it’s also not clear that anybody has quite seen anything like Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter — two pitching aces who send the world scrambling to see if anybody can remember a college duo quite like this.
Kumar Rocker is a massive block of a pitcher. The son of former Auburn football great Tracy Rocker, his 6-5, 245-pound frame might be suited for the gridiron … were it not for the absolutely blazing heat that approaches triple digits on the radar gun that follows from his right hand. Add in a nasty, sharp-breaking slider and you end up with a guy who does things like throw a 19-strikeout no-hitter in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. As a true freshman.
Rocker went 12-5 with a 3.25 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 99 2/3 innings during that freshman campaign to help Vanderbilt win the College World Series title. Last year, before COVID wiped out the season, he was 2-1, with a 1.80 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 15 innings. He has been projected as a top-10 pick since the day he arrived in Nashville, and at the end of the 2021 season, he is expected to the first name called in the MLB Draft.
“There just aren’t that many guys like Kumar,” says MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis, when asked who Rocker reminds him of. Callis ultimately decided that the best comparison for Kumar is probably high-school Kumar.
Jack Leiter isn’t quite as imposing at 6-1, 205, but he brings his own impressive athletic pedigree (he’s the son of MLB star Al Leiter) and daunting pitching skills into the season. Leiter has a very capable fastball that touches the mid-90s. He also has a wicked curveball, an effective slider, and a good changeup that he’s rarely needed.
In just 4 appearances in college baseball, Leiter has been nearly unhittable. He was 2-0 with a 1.72 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings before the 2020 season was interrupted. Outside of his lack of collegiate experience, everything about Leiter is impressive. Callis named Athletics and Reds ace Sonny Gray — a former Vandy standout — as a fair comparison to Leiter.
Is it possible that Rocker and Leiter could go No. 1 and No. 2 overall in the 2021 MLB Draft?
“Yeah, they could,” said Callis, a noted draft expert after spending two decades at Baseball America. “I mean, it’s possible.”
Callis admitted that there are some questions based on the lack of exposure for all draft-eligible players after the abbreviated 2020 season. Still, he concurred that there’s reason to think Rocker and Leiter — a draft-eligible sophomore — could be a 1-2 draft duo.
“I think there are some people who would argue they’re the top two prospects in the draft,” Callis said. “I think Kumar is the most famous player in the draft, and he’d probably be the consensus No. 1 guy right now. … You can find a lot of scouts who scout Vanderbilt and they’ll tell you they think Leiter might be better than Rocker.”
The blessing of being Vandy is that even if they didn’t have Rocker and Leiter, the Commodores would probably be solid favorites to end up in Omaha at the College World Series. They open the season Friday afternoon against Wright State ranked No. 6 in Baseball America’s poll.
But with perhaps the two best pitching prospects in the nation … well, the Commodores invited two questions. One was whether there has ever been a duo like this in college baseball. And the other was whether the rest of the SEC and NCAA might as well just not show up for the 2021 season.
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College baseball has seen its share of dynamic duos. Kris Benson and Billy Koch led Clemson to the 1996 College World Series. Both were top-4 overall picks. Gerritt Cole and Trevor Bauer dominated at UCLA. Both were top-3 picks in 2011. Roger Clemens and Calvin Schiraldi led Texas to the 1983 College World Series title, where Clemens closed out Alabama for the national title. Both were first-round picks. There have been other duos drafted in the same first round — in 2007, Vandy’s David Price was taken No. 1 overall and teammate Casey Weathers was selected No. 8. Price developed into an MLB star, but Weathers topped out at Double A.
This is different.
Rocker and Leiter are bidding to supplant them all.
“The one that’s probably the most comparable was Gerritt Cole and Trevor Bauer at UCLA,” Callis said.
In 2011, those two aces were juniors and Bauer absolutely lit up the season for the Bruins, going 13-2 with a 1.25 ERA and 203 strikeouts in 136 2/3 innings. Cole was the bigger guy with the filthiest stuff, but he struggled at times in 2011, going 6-8 with a 3.31 ERA. Still, after the season ended, the Pirates grabbed him with the top pick. The 3-time MLB All-Star has finished in the top 5 of his league’s Cy Young voting 4 times and is drawing a $36 million annual salary from the New York Yankees. Bauer went No. 3 overall to the Diamondbacks, and has won 75 MLB games and picked up the 2020 NL Cy Young Award.
How do Rocker and Leiter measure up?
“The history and the innings aren’t there due to the pandemic,” UCLA Coach John Savage said of the Vandy aces in comparison to Cole and Bauer, whom he coached, “But they both are no-doubters. They certainly meet the eye test, stuff-wise. … Clearly, in terms of draft picks, those would be the two guys they would be compared to.”
Savage’s magical year with the two aces surprisingly did not end with an Omaha run. UCLA won the Pac-12 regular-season title in 2011 but hit a fair share of bumps in a 33-22 season. They were eliminated in the NCAA regional. The Bruins’ NCAA title came 2 years later, against Mississippi State, with a much more anonymous pitching staff.
“Our guys dealt with a lot of adversity,” Savage said. “Trevor and Garrett were very comfortable being under the spotlight. … It’s not easy, but the arena and environment creates a lot of that and obviously, (Vandy coach) Tim (Corbin) has created that sort of culture and both of those kids are very good team guys. They need to stay close to their teammates and their coaches, because of the high visibility that’s coming up.”
Another high-visibility collegiate duo came from Clemson in 1996. Benson was perhaps the nastiest pitcher in collegiate baseball. He went 14-2 with a 2.02 ERA and 204 strikeouts in 156 innings for the Tigers. The Tigers also had Billy Koch, who blossomed into a hard-throwing standout with a 10-5 season and a 3.14 ERA. Both Benson and Koch displayed major-league quality stuff. Both were part of the decorated 1996 Olympic team that nearly upset world-power Cuba before settling for the bronze medal. Benson was the No. 1 overall pick in that summer’s draft. Koch was selected No. 4.
Both had distinguished MLB careers. Injuries limited Benson, but he had 5 MLB seasons of double-digit victories despite pitching most of his career for the Pirates. Koch, whose fastball approached triple digits, became a closer and began his MLB career with 4 consecutive 30+ save seasons before arm problems also curtailed his MLB days.
Both were considered sure things as college juniors. With two aces, Clemson doubtlessly stormed to a No. 1 ranking and a World Series title, right? Wrong.
Clemson didn’t win the ACC, falling to Florida State in the league race and the ACC Tournament. They did sweep through their NCAA region but fell twice to Miami in Omaha, and despite knocking out top seed Alabama in the loser’s bracket, the Tigers didn’t claim any titles with two aces.
So the two closest matches for Rocker and Leiter both went pro without winning the title in their goodbye season. Should this be considered a bad omen for Vandy?
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Vanderbilt is, of course, is a unique situation. The Vandy Boys have made the College World Series finals 3 times in the last 6 seasons, winning titles in 2014 and 2019. That said, both UCLA and Clemson were also successful programs that had made recent Omaha runs before their last year with two aces. Surely having two absolutely standouts on the mound should matter significantly in college baseball? In the abstract, Callis agrees.
“You can kind of shrink the pitching staff,” Callis said. “In a normal season, what matters is your weekend … and you’re going to have two guys who could be the potential No. 1 overall pick pitching Friday and Saturday for you. On paper, you’re going to have the advantage every Friday night and every Saturday night.”
Beyond conference play, the advantage only increases.
“Really, the way Omaha is set up, unless you get into the loser’s bracket early, you can pretty much get by with three starters,” Callis said. “Your games that are really going to matter, you’ll have a No. 1 pick on the mound.”
Schedule management was on Savage’s mind as he recalled his experience with two aces.
“Trevor is probably the first and only Golden Spikes Award winner that pitched on Saturdays,” Savage said. “You don’t really see that decorated of a pitcher pitch the second game in a series.”
He continued, “It’s a lot different pitching on Fridays than pitching on Saturdays. … It seemed like every game that Garrett pitched in was tight, and a lot of games that Trevor pitched, we won 9-0 or 9-1. It seemed like we had a lot more offense on Saturday than on Friday.”
So managing expectations and pitching turns could be daunting for Vandy? Not especially, Savage said.
“At the end of the day, the Vanderbilt culture is so team-built, and Tim has done a remarkable job year after year,” Savage said. “They have great examples. Sonny Gray, David Price … they have their own examples.”
In 2007, Vandy lost in the Regionals — Price gave up the game-winning home run — with a pair of studs.
At some point, looking to the past for guidance on Rocker and Leiter just reinforces that their future is bright — maybe uniquely bright. And fixing the issues that plagued past aces just might give Vandy’s two aces the advantage in any such comparisons moving ahead. A World Series title? Possible. A historic No. 1 and No. 2 draft status? Plausible.
The best ever? Rocker will begin the quest Friday, but that goal is well within reach for Vandy’s aces.