PHOENIX, ARIZ.–The 2018 baseball season started to come to life during the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, as live baseball returned to the Phoenix, Arizona area with a bang as a large number of amateur players and coaches descended on the Valley of the Sun. One of the key events is the second annual Dream Series at Tempe Diablo Stadium, hosted by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball, bringing a diverse group of more than 60 prep pitchers and catchers for four long days of instruction and mentoring by a staff of former Major League players and coaches.
"We want these kids to have an opportunity," said Del Matthews, Senior Director of Baseball Development for Major League Baseball. "They're extremely talented and we're giving back with the Major League coaches involved ... It's a great culmination for four days to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day and what MLK means to us all."
The players participate in bullpen sessions, fielding drills and batting practice during the daily workouts, while also attending evening presentations regarding baseball career opportunities. According to Matthews, the workshops at the hotel emphasize professional etiquette, leadership skills and how to be an inspiration to others.
Georgia high school righthander Kumar Rocker is arguably the event's biggest name, and at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds he is certainly the biggest participant size-wise. Likely to be a first-round pick in 2018, Rocker got plenty of exposure on national telecasts last summer as the starting pitcher at both the Under Armour All-America Game and the Perfect Game All-American Classic.
In addition to his large, athletic frame, Rocker stands out for his plus fastball that gets up to 98 mph. He also works in a power curveball around 85 mph. Rocker said that he started using his 88-90 mph changeup more often last summer, and expects that in time it will surpass the breaking ball as his second pitch.
Having been shut down from pitching during the winter, Rocker is not participating in the bullpen sessions at the Dream Series. But that doesn't mean he's not taking full advantage of the opportunities presented to him during his four days in Tempe.
"I came here to get information and utilize it in my game," Rocker said. "Sitting down (with the coaches), we have time to talk about everything they know. I've bonded with all of them."
Ten-year major league veteran Marvin Freeman is one of the pitching coaches at the event. He saw plenty of Rocker during the summer travel ball circuit in Georgia, and agrees that there's a significant amount of information that the 18-year-old pitcher can take away from the Dream Series event.
"He can gain a vast wealth of knowledge on different approaches that big league guys have taken," Freeman said, "and know that it's not all about brute strength or how hard you can throw a pitch past someone. It's learning the different aspects of pitching, like changing speeds, not tipping your pitches, being able to control the ball to both sides of the plate, and not having to throw with max effort every time out .... You are always learning in this game."
Rocker appreciates the value of the mental aspect of the game, acquiring many of his skills in that area from his father Tracy Rocker, a former National Football League defensive lineman and coach and now the newly-hired defensive line coach at the University of Tennessee. His father helped instill in Rocker, who played high school football through his sophomore year, the work ethic and grind required for the gridiron.
"He said that everything in baseball is 90 percent mental," Rocker said regarding his father's lessons. "The composure you need on the mound to be a pitcher is on you. You've just got to learn how to handle yourself, and everything you do is looked at."
Freeman has seen that mental toughness in Rocker as well as the ability to be a little bit meaner on the field. But there's a difference in how the young righthander will need to handle those emotions when he's on the mound.
"The attitude in football and baseball is quite different," Freeman said. "As a pitcher he's still going to have to temper that down and understand that once you get emotional on the mound you start making more mistakes, unlike in football when you get emotional you start playing better at times. He's learning to separate the two, and having both perspectives give him a better understanding of how he needs to develop himself. "
Rocker is committed to Vanderbilt to continue his post-high school career–provided he instead doesn't turn pro after the 2018 draft. He was attracted to the Commodores program because of the pitching program there and the chance to get a great education. But if as expected he's drafted in the first round, Rocker may never make it to campus.
GETTING NOTICED: The Dream Series provides the opportunity for lesser-known players to raise their stock in the eyes of scouts and coaches. Among the young pitchers cited by Matthews as showing well at the event are a couple of pitchers from the 2019 class: North Carolina native Isaiah Bennett, who flashed an intriguing repertoire during his bullpen sessions, and Houston product Tre Faltine, noted for his maturity and electric stuff. Allante Hall, a 2018 catcher from Kansas City, turned heads with his great hands, ability to receive and very strong arm.