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Rocker, Leiter Become First Teammates To Win Player, Freshman Of The Year In Same Season



Vanderbilt righthanders Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter came into the 2021 season regarded as the two best college prospects in the country.

Both could have been first-round picks out of high school—Rocker in 2018, Leiter in 2019—but opted instead to play for the Commodores. As they entered their draft year, both had a chance to be chosen with the first overall pick.

As lofty as the expectations were, Rocker and Leiter largely lived up to them. Rocker went 14-4, 2.73 in 122 innings. Leiter went 11-4, 2.13 in 110 innings. The pair tied for the national lead in strikeouts with 179. Both were first-team All-Americans, making them the first rotation-mates to earn that honor in the same year since Rice’s Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend in 2003.

Rocker and Leiter led Vanderbilt to the College World Series finals, where the Commodores fell one win shy of repeating as national champions after winning it all in 2019. While neither Rocker nor Leiter ended up as the No. 1 overall pick —the Pirates instead selected Louisville catcher Henry Davis—Leiter went second to the Rangers and Rocker went 10th to the Mets. That made them the first rotation-mates to be selected in the top 10 picks since UCLA’s Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer in 2011.

No other player in college baseball this year combined the level of success, premium prospect status and impact as Rocker and Leiter. For those reasons, Rocker is the Baseball America Player of the Year and Leiter is the Freshman of the Year.

Rocker turned in an impressive third season of college baseball. In addition to matching Leiter for the most strikeouts, his 14 wins were the most in the nation. In three seasons on campus, he went 28-10, 2.89 with 321 strikeouts and 68 walks in 236.2 innings.

Leiter, a second-year freshman, was nearly as impressive in his first full season in college. After throwing just 15.2 innings in 2020 before the season was canceled, he excelled in the Vanderbilt rotation this spring. He made waves March 20 when he no-hit South Carolina and then built a hitless inning streak that reached 20 and spanned three starts.

Leiter and all members of the 2020 freshman class were eligible for this year’s Freshman of the Year award because they played only about a quarter of the 2020 season. If it had been an injury and not a pandemic that had ended their season at the same point, they would have been eligible for a redshirt and therefore still considered freshmen the following year. Baseball America applied the same standard for the 2021 season.

Following the College World Series, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin was asked what he will most remember about coaching Rocker. He nearly broke down in tears while describing what it has meant.

“He’s just a one-in-a-million kid,” Corbin said. “His fibers are so real and so pure. He just loves team. He’s connected to competition. He’s connected to his teammates in such a way that (he’s) just the ultimate college pitcher, ultimate college teammate. The ultimate college baseball player. He’ll go down as one of the very best we’ve had at Vanderbilt.

“I don’t like to categorize the kids because I don’t want to slight anyone, but, my gosh, this kid—he’s meant so much to our program. He’s meant a lot to college baseball. He’s meant a lot to the SEC.

“He’s the best reflection of his parents. That’s high praise. He’s just done everything right. I love that young man.”

Corbin said the key for Leiter to reach his lofty level was the consistency he brings to everything he does day in and day out.

“Consistency to what he’s doing—he’s the same every day,” Corbin said. “Whether it’s academically, socially or athletically, he’s low-maintenance, mature, gets to the facility, and it’s full-on go. He’s wired to compete, too, every single day.

“He just works at what he’s doing. He’s got a strong passion for what he’s doing. High care-level kid. I think regardless of how he was spoken about, he’s just thrown himself into the group. He loves competing for the team. He’s very protective of the team.”

Leiter comes from a baseball family. His father Al pitched for 19 seasons in the major leagues and was a two-time all-star and 1997 World Series champion with the Marlins. His uncle Mark pitched 11 seasons in the major leagues. His cousin Mark Jr. pitched in the major leagues for two seasons.

Naturally, Leiter said he learned a lot from his father.

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