Kumar Rocker, Ethan Hankins, J.T. Ginn Shine At PG WWBA
A lot of information can be gathered in 24 hours. This maxim held true on the sixth day of Perfect Game’s World Wood Bat Championships on Thursday, with many of the tournament’s games from earlier in the week being moved to the sixth day of the tournament because of weather.
One of the day’s earliest pitchers—Carter Raffield out of Bleckley High (Cochran, Ga.) showed intriguing athleticism, a projectable body and a quick arm. Before the day’s end, Raffield committed to Clemson.
And then there were the Team Elite Prime pitchers, Kumar Rocker (North Oconee, Bogart, Ga.) and Ethan Hankins (Forsyth Central High, Cumming, Ga.).
Rocker had one of his best performances so far this summer, throwing a 51-pitch, one-hit shutout against the South Charlotte Panthers. (All of Thursday’s games were five innings to make up for lost time caused by weather delays earlier in the week.)
Rocker’s fastball sat 94-97 mph in his first two innings before settling in at 91-95. He showed feel for an above-average slider, with late tilt and hard, mid-80s velocity. In case that wasn’t impressive enough, Rocker busted out his changeup in the fifth inning, throwing it from a slightly lower arm slot than that of his fastball and generating heavy tumbling action to induce a swing-and-miss. Rocker threw 41 pitches for strikes, though the home plate umpire in that game had an egregiously wide strike zone.
Rocker had long-tossed and started to warm up on the mound just before a lightning storm. He long-tossed again after the delay and saw no noticeable dropoff even after going through his routine twice.
Rocker has all the stuff and athleticism to develop into a front-of-the-rotation horse. Even still, there’s debate among scouts as to who they prefer between him and teammate Hankins.
Later in the day, Hankins tossed a shutout of his own. Baseball America didn’t have eyes on his first three innings, but Hankins worked at 94-97 in the fourth and then came back out for the fifth inning after a rain delay and sat 94-96. Hankins’ curveball is progressing steadily. Developing his curveball velocity has been a point of emphasis for Hankins, who does spin drills in between outings to try to more consistently throw his curveball with fastball arm speed. In his final inning, Hankins generated tight spin on the pitch, with hard horizontal bit at 75-77. It has the makings of an above-average or better pitch as Hankins continues to work on it.
Hankins is skinnier than Rocker, more likely to add weight and strength in the coming years, while Rocker is already thick and muscled, built like a lineman in the mold of his father—Tracy Rocker. That’s the same Tracy Rocker who was an All-American defensive tackle at Georgia and went on to play in the NFL before a successful coaching career.
Rocker’s slider is ahead of Hankins’ curveball, but Hankins’ fastball command is ahead of Rocker’s. With the two of them often being lumped together as travel ball teammates and front-of-the-class arms from the Peach State, the debate about who’s better will last long beyond this summer and long after the 2018 draft.
Just before Rocker’s outing on Thursday, Brandon (Miss.) High righthander J.T. Ginn took the mound for East Coast Sox Select around 11 a.m. He hadn’t pitched since July 1, when he showed his devastating three-pitch mix at the Tournament of Stars. Ginn threw 19 pitches on Thursday morning, sitting 93-94 and touching 95 while mixing in a hard slider at 83-84 with plus-or-better potential.
Due to all the rainouts earlier in the week, teams kept playing through the night to get the tournament back on schedule in advance of Friday afternoon’s semifinal and championship games. For Ginn and the East Coast Sox, this meant playing in four games in one day.
Ginn has a country-strong build, standing at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, but he’s much more athletic than his body type would indicate as he walks off the bus. After pitching for the Sox, Ginn moved over to shortstop, where he showed first-step quickness and natural reactions and instincts. At the plate, he has a well-balanced swing with strength and pull-side power. In one of his four games, Ginn turned on an inside fastball and drove a hard line drive into the left field corner.
But after playing in a 10 a.m. game—and three more—Ginn came back out to pitch the final inning of the final game of the night. Stepping in from shortstop, he warmed up at approximately 2:40 a.m. Ginn had thrown just 19 pitches earlier in the day, but had played shortstop all day long.
Instead of his stuff backing up, as you’d expect for an 18-year-old—Ginn is old for the 2018 class—he came out firing bullets, unaffected by his extremely long day at the field. Ginn sat at 95-97 with plus movement on his fastball, showing late life through the zone. He struck out three batters, throwing his plus-plus fastball and plus slider in the strike zone and getting swings and misses.
“I think I was more tired then (in the morning) than I am now,” Ginn said, laughing with a 3 a.m. looseness to his demeanor. “It’s been a long day, I mean obviously it’s 3 in the morning. I was just trying to give it all I had. That was about all I’ve got.”
Perfect Game complies with MLB’s Pitch Smart guidelines, and the organization also has a rule that a pitcher cannot be used in a second game on the same day if he has already thrown 20 or more pitches in a game. These guidelines are designed to prevent competitive travel ball coaches from overusing young pitchers without careful consideration for the long-term health of the players.
“I was just trying to save it a little bit because I knew I could come back later today,” Ginn said. “They had told me that I was only going to throw 19 pitches, because the limit is 20 before you can’t throw the same day, so I knew I was going to come back again if we made it deep today.”
When asked if there were any reservations about trying to protect his arm, Ginn said his only focus was on winning and that he was ready to roll.
“I was just going to lay it all out,” Ginn said. “My whole team, they laid it out for me, so I was going to lay it out for them.”
Ginn is similar in some respects to 2017 All-American Tanner Burns, with his lethal fastball-breaking ball combo, a stout, country-strong build, an intense competitive fire and the ability to affect the game as a position player even though his long-term future is on the mound.
Three More To Watch
• Evoshield Canes shortstop Xavier Edwards (North Broward Prep, Coconut Creek, Fla.) is firmly establishing himself as one of the best all-around players in the country. He performed well at PG National, then excelled at the Wilson Premier East Classic as well. Edwards is a switch-hitter with a compact stroke and loose wrists from both sides of the plate. He is a top-of-the-scale runner with quick feet and soft hands at shortstop.
• Canes righthander Austin Becker (Big Walnut High, Sunbury, Ohio) pitched mostly in the low 90s with his fastball, peaking at 95 mph in his first inning. (Baseball America was not there for the first inning, but there was a stream available on Periscope.) Becker has a quick arm and plenty of room for physical growth. He’ll need to keep working to get stronger to hold his velocity better, but he’s shown flashes with three pitches and has the ingredients to develop into a true starting pitching prospect.
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• FTB Tucci righthander Bo Blessie (Lee High, Midland, Texas) has a wiry, 6-foot-3, 155-pound build with plenty of room to fill out. He’s a very flexible athlete on the mound and his fastball touched 94 in his first inning before settling in at 89-92. Blessie flashed plus movement on the pitch, with late sinking action as it came through the zone. Blessie oozes with projection and could be poised for a jump next spring given his athleticism, arm speed and the room for him to fill in his frame.