Already The 2021 MLB Draft Favorite, Kumar Rocker Readies For High Expectations
The air in Hawkins Field crackled with a heightened anticipation on the evening of June 8 as Vanderbilt prepared to face Duke in Game 2 of the Nashville Super Regional. Duke had upset the hosts in Game 1, putting the Blue Devils one win away from their first trip to the College World Series since 1961. Standing in their way were the Southeastern Conference champions and freshman righthander Kumar Rocker, who were looking to force a decisive third game.
With his powerful fastball and hard slider working in tandem, Rocker was electric. Batter after batter went down swinging, unable to connect with his slider darting out of the zone. He would finish the night with 19 strikeouts and a no-hitter, the first ever thrown in super regionals.
On the big stage, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound freshman captured the attention of the sports world in a way few, if any, college baseball performances ever have. Rocker followed up that historic night with two more outstanding starts in Omaha to help Vanderbilt to the national championship and win the CWS Most Outstanding Player award. He was also named Freshman of the Year after going 12-5, 3.25 with 114 strikeouts and 21 walks in 99.2 innings.
After his sensational season, Rocker spent the summer at Vanderbilt working out. The break from baseball gave him a chance to reflect on the spring but, even then, he didn’t revel in it.
“I definitely reflected on it, but just being here it wasn’t really on my mind,” Rocker said. “I’m not a very out-there type of person. I really just stayed in my room and watched how things went.”
Now, Rocker faces his next challenge: living up to even more hype. He’s college baseball’s most famous player, has established himself as the early favorite to be drafted No. 1 overall in 2021 and is the ace of the top-ranked team in the preseason. There will be more attention, more scrutiny, more expectations.
It’s a lot for a 20-year-old.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, who has worked with many stars throughout his career, doesn’t think any outside pressure will get to Rocker.
“That’s the way he’s been raised,” Corbin said. “Tracy and Lu would never let him get ahead of himself. Because of that Kumar never lets him get ahead of himself.”
In the immediate aftermath of the no-hitter, Rocker found himself getting recognized more. He said the craziest part of his newfound fame has been when a section of the crowd at a Vanderbilt football or basketball game will start chanting his name.
The best way for Rocker to handle the increased attention is by living up to the hype on the field. To that end, he has worked hard on his craft since the end of last season.
Rocker, like a lot of young players, needed to focus more on his physicality and spent the summer working on that, both by working out and improving his nutrition. He said when he got to Vanderbilt last year, he was 264 pounds. His weight fluctuated, going up before eventually falling to 245 by the end of the season. After his summer of working out, he has built more muscle than he’s ever had and at the end of fall ball was 260 pounds, which he says is his best weight.
Rocker’s extra-large frame helps make him an elite pitcher. It helps him throw mid-90s fastballs, shoulder the heavy burden of being a starting pitcher and makes him more imposing on the mound. But it also means he has to take extra care with his delivery to ensure it remains consistent, a necessity for pitching with control.
Rocker has made important strides in that area over the last year, but he said improving the efficiency of his delivery remains his primary goal.
Vanderbilt Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
In the big picture, Vanderbilt is operating at an extremely high level right now, but it will go into 2021 as an inexperienced team.
Even as good as he is, Rocker has room for improvement over the next two seasons. His changeup remains a work in progress and he knows he needs to fine-tune his command.
Corbin sees room for improvement for Rocker in many of the finer aspects of his craft, from understanding better how to manipulate his pitches to controlling the running game. He has little doubt Rocker will get there.
“He takes on a very deliberate approach to what he’s doing,” Corbin said. “The investment period that that kid has in himself is high. He wants to get it.”
As much as anything, Rocker said his biggest development since arriving at Vanderbilt has been the mental side of the game. Pitching coach Scott Brown has worked with him to understand how the mental and physical sides of pitching work in tandem.
Rocker has taken those efforts to heart and applied them on the field.
“It’s a lot more mental than you think and if you bring that to the field every day you should have success,” he said. “But it’s not all physical—it’s not all in your long toss, it’s not all in your dry rep, it’s all in your mentality, coming to the field knowing you can dominate.”
That mentality spreads to his teammates. Initially, third baseman Austin Martin didn’t think Rocker’s personality lent itself to that killer instinct. But as Martin got to know Rocker more, he came to see that initial read was wrong.
The rest of the nation got to see Rocker’s competitiveness on full display during the NCAA Tournament. The no-hitter was the highlight, but he was brilliant throughout June, going 4-0, 0.96 with 44 strikeouts and five walks in 28 innings.
For fans, it was appointment viewing every time Rocker took the mound. For the Commodores, it was just what they needed.
“The kid competes, man,” Martin said. “He loves to win, and I think that’s huge. You get on the mound and you see him on there, and you see the way he throws the ball, the intent behind it, the way he works – it’s incredible.”
So, how high is Rocker’s ceiling? During Corbin’s 18-year tenure in Nashville, the Commodores have produced nine first-round pitchers, more than any other school in the 21st century. He coached another three while he was an assistant at Clemson.
Among all the talented pitchers Corbin has coached over the years, the one who springs to mind for Corbin when he evaluates Rocker’s combination of an advanced cerebral approach to the game, his leadership and premium pitching ability is his best ever.
“I think David Price, they have some similarities among the two of them,” Corbin said. “They’re both vocal when they’re not pitching, they’re both on every pitch when they’re not pitching, they’re both learners, they’re both curious, they’re both good athletes, they love groups, they like to have fun, they’re smart, they’re accountable, they take responsibility and don’t shed it. I think those things to me, they’re very similar in that regard.”
The noise around Rocker is building again. But cool and collected as always, he’s ready for whatever comes next.