Kumar Rocker had high hopes for himself entering his freshman year at Vanderbilt in 2019. But he didn’t get off to the start he envisioned. He allowed five runs in his first collegiate start against Texas Christian University. The right-handed pitcher surrendered six runs in his third Southeastern Conference start about one month later.
He didn’t let those early-season struggles derail his freshman season, though. Opposing teams scored more than three runs off Rocker just once over his final seven regular-season starts.
Rocker carried that success into postseason play. He tossed the first-ever no-hitter in NCAA Tournament Super Regional history when he struck out a remarkable 19 batters on 131 pitches against Duke.
His historic performance propelled him to two dominant performances in the College World Series. Vanderbilt won its second national championship in program history, and Rocker earned the CWS Most Outstanding Player award. He won both his starts and posted a 1.46 ERA in the CWS.
“I think I hit all different emotions during that season with performing bad to good and with ups and downs with just the season in general,” Rocker said. “I just really look back, and I am thankful for it. I am thankful for every moment of it. All I can do is just take things from that season, not necessarily to recreate them, but take what I can from it and implement it in this team.”
One thing Rocker hopes to take from his freshman season is the leadership traits the upperclassmen exhibited throughout Vanderbilt’s national championship run.
He’s eager to start his junior season after his sophomore year ended prematurely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He also hopes to guide Vanderbilt back to the pinnacle of college baseball.
There will be a herd of professional scouts in attendance anytime Rocker toes the rubber this spring. Rocker is the presumptive favorite to go first overall to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2021 MLB draft in July.
Rocker has grown accustomed to the pro attention throughout his young career. Scouts flocked to his starts at North Oconee High School in Georgia over his final two years of high school. He was a potential first-round pick out of the prep ranks in 2018, but signability concerns caused him to fall to the Colorado Rockies in the 38th round.
The decision to attend a premier college baseball program known for its player development has paid off. Rocker has enhanced his skills on the mound to elevate his status as a pro prospect.
“I think I’ve improved a lot throughout my time at Vanderbilt,” Rocker said. “I am ready to get out there and show them what I can do.”
Rocker knew attending college would likely benefit him. His father, Tracy, has been a college and pro football coach for over 20 years and currently serves as the University of South Carolina’s defensive line coach.
His father was a defensive tackle at Auburn University and a third-round pick by the Washington Redskins in the 1989 NFL draft. He also was an inductee in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
Growing up around college and pro athletics has aided Rocker’s development, as it allowed him to see what it takes to succeed at a high level from an early age.
Rocker believes his father has had the biggest impact on him throughout his amateur baseball career.
“I remember when I was young, and I know this is kind of cheesy, but he told me to never quit,” Rocker said. “I guess that goes a long way with the things we go through throughout life.”
As a freshman, Rocker posted a 12-5 record with a 3.25 ERA, 114 strikeouts, and 21 walks allowed in 99 2/3 innings allowed in 2019.
Rocker’s success in his freshman year caused everyone to put high expectations on him entering last season. He showed encouraging results in his first three starts, posting a 1.80 ERA with 28 strikeouts and eight walks allowed in 15 innings, until the COVID-19 pandemic caused the college baseball season to end prematurely.
The 6-foot-4, 255-pound right-hander throws a fastball, slider, changeup, and cutter from an over-the-head, low-effort delivery. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and regularly touches the high-90s. He possesses an above-average slider that features more vertical movement than horizontal break. He commands his overpowering slider well, and it serves as an effective outpitch.
Rocker’s tumbling changeup shows potential and has improved throughout his time at Vanderbilt. He has displayed more consistency with the pitch over the last two years.
In his time at Vanderbilt, Rocker also has worked on incorporating a cutter into his repertoire. His cutter is a “work in progress” but it is an offering he has confidence throwing, he said.
“It was really the first thing coach (Scott) Brown said when I walked in,” said Rocker on developing a cutter. “I was never opposed to it. It is kind of in the same family as the slider, so I thought I could work off of it.”
Rocker didn’t pitch in a summer league during the offseason and instead used the time to refine his skills in preparation for his junior year. He dedicated time to “getting his body right” by improving his nutrition and weight lifting while refining his pitching mechanics, he said.
He also has dedicated time during fall practices to tightening up his delivery. That will remain a focal point for Rocker as he prepares for his junior season in the spring.
“I just want to work on replicating my delivery,” Rocker said. “I want to get that way tighter. I think I can keep improving that. Definitely, inside the stretch, I need to get that leg a little quicker.”
Rocker raves about how he’s developed on an off the baseball field in his time at Vanderbilt. He hopes to leave his mark at Vanderbilt and guide the Commodores to another College World Series title in what likely will be his final collegiate season.
“I think it’s really enjoyable to see my growth over my time here,” Rocker said. “Vanderbilt is everything I thought it would be, and I’m really grateful for my time here.”
Read more in-depth stories on top 2021 MLB draft prospects here.
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for six years. He’s interviewed 253 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today, MLB.com and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he’s appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.