Vanderbilt Stars Kumar Rocker, Jack Leiter Somehow Lived Up To The Hype In 2021

Kumar Rocker is listed at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and cuts an imposing figure on the mound. Usually wearing Vanderbilt’s black pinstripes—hat, jersey, pants and socks all black—Rocker is a nightmare for opposing batters. Armed with a ferocious fastball/slider combination, he leads the Commodores’ rotation.

Jack Leiter follows Rocker in the Vanderbilt rotation and stands in contrast, listed at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds. He is lithe on the mound and while at first glance doesn’t have the same intimidating build, batters know the danger Leiter presents. He attacks hitters with a four-pitch mix that has been unhittable at times this spring.

As different as Rocker and Leiter might appear at first glance, there is much that connects the righthanders. At their core, they represent the “Vandy Boy” ethos that coach Tim Corbin works so hard to instill in his team. It’s a philosophy that demands team over self and takes great care to make college about much more than baseball.

They are both intense competitors and have former professional athlete fathers. Tracy Rocker played football at Auburn and in the NFL before moving into coaching. He’s currently the defensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. Al Leiter is a two-time all-star lefthander who pitched 19 years in the big leagues, predominantly for the Mets.


The thing that connects the pair the most, of course, is their talent. Rocker and Leiter are college baseball’s best 1-2 punch this season and perhaps the best of the 21st century.

Rocker and Leiter are both first-team All-Americans, becoming the first rotation-mates to accomplish that since Rice’s Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend in 2003.

Rocker and Leiter both project as top 10 overall draft picks, something no rotation-mates have done since UCLA’s Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer were selected first and third in the 2011 draft.

When they are selected in the first round, Rocker and Leiter will become the 10th and 11th Vanderbilt pitchers to be first-round picks in Corbin’s 20 years in Nashville.

Rocker and Leiter are the two most famous players in college baseball. They were the highest-ranked players to enter college baseball in successive high school draft classes—Rocker in 2018 and Leiter in 2019—and had been prominent among prep baseball observers and draftniks for years.

But the spotlight shines even brighter in college baseball and they both found a way to grab it. Rocker did so in 2019 when he struck out 19 batters in a no-hitter against Duke in super regionals and then backed up that gem with a pair of outstanding starts in the College World Series to help Vanderbilt to the national championship. He was named Freshman of the Year.

Leiter dazzled early as a true freshman in 2020 before the pandemic halted the season, but he made up for lost time this spring. He threw a no-hitter against South Carolina on the opening weekend of Southeastern Conference play and then didn’t allow a hit for two more weeks, a streak that lasted for 20 innings.

As great as Rocker and Leiter have been all season long, as many brilliant performances as they have turned in, Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown has been most struck by the way they haven’t been affected by anything surrounding them—not the draft talk, not the attention, not the pressure. They have just taken the ball every week and gone to work.

“The most impressive trait for both of them is their ability to handle the individual expectations of performance from week to week,” Brown said. “Sometimes, to me, those are unfair expectations. The ability to keep their compass pointed at team results.

“It’s such a challenging thing to do as an individual, especially when you, as I like to say, step onto the center of universe. Both of them have shown that ability, whether it’s after a subpar outing or after a dominant outing or shutting out the naysayers.”

With Rocker and Leiter leading the way, Vanderbilt is again back at the forefront of college baseball. The Commodores were 45-15 going into the College World Series and had a chance to repeat as national champions. The team’s standing wasn’t all due to its duo atop the rotation, but they were the driving force. In a sport largely built around three-game series, having such a dominant 1-2 punch is a tremendous advantage.

Not only has the duo of Rocker and Leiter made Vanderbilt a force all year long, it has also brought out the best in each of them.

They are partners playing catch and keen observers of the other’s starts, often charting each other. They aren’t rivals, but they are natural competitors, and, in this case, iron has sharpened iron.

Rocker’s electric start against Duke in 2019 sent his star to new heights. Never before had someone thrown a no-hitter in super regionals—which have been a part of the NCAA Tournament since 1999—and his came with Vanderbilt facing elimination. For good measure, he was a freshman breaking off hellacious slider after hellacious slider.

The way Rocker followed that start was just as impressive. He made two starts in Omaha, including in the finals against Michigan with Vanderbilt again facing elimination, and held opponents to one run on five hits in 12.1 innings. His performance earned him CWS Most Outstanding Player honors, ahead of teammates JJ Bleday, the fourth overall pick in the 2019 draft; and Austin Martin, the fifth overall pick in 2020.

Rocker didn’t allow his newfound celebrity to change the way he approaches the game. That is something Corbin credits to Rocker’s parents, Tracy and Lalitha. It’s just not in Rocker’s nature to get caught up in the attention.

“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 (that summer) and watched how things went.”

That same approach has served Rocker well this season. He came into the year as the favorite to go first overall in the draft. But as evaluators dug deeper, his status atop draft boards slipped a bit. He’s still expected to be a top 10 pick, but concerns about his heavy slider usage and large frame have cropped up.

Shutting out the noise and focusing on the field is often a challenge for players as they approach the draft. Rocker looked inward for focus.

“I wouldn’t say it’s been easy, but for the most part it’s been my teammates in the locker room, myself and God, of course.”

Through it all, however, Rocker has largely been unfazed. He’s taken the ball every Friday night for the Commodores and taken on all comers. He shone on some big stages. He threw seven scoreless innings at Tennessee and a complete game against Mississippi State. He’s also had some lesser outings—he got knocked out in the fourth inning by Arkansas in the SEC Tournament—but he’s come back the next week, as ready as ever.

“Kumar’s confidence, he bounces back pretty quickly from a win or from a loss,” Corbin said. “Not much changes for him. What you see is what you get. He’s a very real kid.”


In 2019, Rocker had an important role for the national champions, but with so many veterans around him, he didn’t have to be a leader as well. The nature of college sports, however, meant that eventually he became one of the veterans and had to assume some of the leadership roles that come with that status.

It’s something he’s grown into naturally. Corbin has been careful not to ever expect anything more from Rocker than what he delivered as a freshman, never asking him to be more than he is. But Rocker understands that as the Friday starter, it is incumbent on him to set the tone for the weekend and that his teammates often look to him for an example.

Corbin said the way Rocker has grown into that kind of leader is the biggest jump he’s seen from his ace.

“That level of maturity today that didn’t reside several years ago,” Corbin said. “It’s the leadership component for him. He has a protective spirit. He protects his team, and he protects his boys. That piece is more overwhelming now because of where he is in this team and his stage of life.”

Brown first saw Leiter when he and his father toured Vanderbilt’s facilities six years ago. Leiter was a freshman in high school and technically on an unofficial visit. It was really an unofficial visit for Al, who was interested in learning about the program Corbin had built and the vaunted pitching development program that began under former Vanderbilt pitching coach Derek Johnson, now the Reds pitching coach, and has continued under Brown.

“Save some room for him,” Brown remembers Leiter telling him. “I know he’s small, but he’s going to be pretty good.”

Leiter returned to Vanderbilt a year and a half later to pitch at a fall camp. He was throwing 86-88 mph then, but Brown saw something he liked. The poise Leiter had on the mound, the way the ball moved, the presence he
pitched with.

The following summer, Leiter’s velocity had jumped into the mid 90s and there was little to wonder about anymore.

“By no means did I think in six to eight months he’d be throwing 96,” Brown said of watching Leiter at Vanderbilt’s camp. “I was more impressed with his ability to mix pitches, feel pitches and demonstrate the ability to be on the mound.”

The recruiting dialogue picked up from there and soon Leiter was committed to Vanderbilt. But no one really knew whether he’d make it to campus. He was rated as a first-round pick out of high school and between his stuff, pitchability and pedigree, it would have been easy to imagine him signing. But he was committed to playing for Vanderbilt and he arrived on campus in 2019, with the Commodores fresh off a national championship.

Leiter was being brought along slowly in 2020 thanks to the incredible depth of the pitching staff. He began his career as the Commodores’ mid-week starter, out of the spotlight of the weekend rotation, and was thriving in that role before the pandemic halted the season.

There would be no easing into things in 2021, however. Leiter was draft-eligible as a second-year player due to his age, and early rankings had him penciled in at the top of draft boards alongside Rocker. His early performance only fueled those rankings. His hitless streak helped fuel talk of him as the No. 1 overall pick. As the season went on, he—like all players, and especially all newcomers to the SEC—went through some up and down stretches.

Leiter missed a start in May, a late scratch due to fatigue. He bounced back well from it, the week off seeming to rejuvenate him, and he was excellent down the stretch for the Commodores.

“I started lifting lighter to take it easier on my body and I think that started, I don’t know, it could have been more mental, but I felt like my body wasn’t moving down the mound as explosively as I’d like,” Leiter said. “Having the week off gave me the opportunity to put more weight on the bar and explode up more in the weight room.”

After that skipped start, Leiter threw five straight quality starts leading into the CWS and allowed just three home runs after allowing eight in his previous three starts. Mental or physical, his adjustments worked.

Leiter has lived up to the hype for Vanderbilt, and Vanderbilt has lived up to the hype for Leiter, even though the pandemic and the canceled 2020 season have given his career a different shape than could ever have been anticipated.

“You have the dream of playing here, but you don’t know exactly what it’ll entail,” Leiter said. “I came in not knowing and I was fulfilled with what I expected, and more.

“Overall, the culture here is so present and prevalent. In the classroom, coach Corbin talks about the importance of how you carry yourself off the field before you even start talking about baseball. It’s obvious you come out of Vanderbilt a better person off the field and on the field.

“It’s everything I thought it would be and more.”

As a 1-2 punch, it is difficult to find an equal for Rocker and Leiter in recent college baseball history. Cole and Bauer hold the lofty draft status, but Cole, despite being the first overall pick in 2011, never had a season to match Rocker and Leiter. Niemann and Townsend were both first-team All-American starters in 2003 for Rice, but Townsend actually appeared in more games as a reliever (16) than a starter (13).

To have two pitchers like Rocker and Leiter take the ball every weekend and be as consistently dominant is incredibly rare. No matter where they land in the draft, their collegiate accomplishments will stand among the greats.

Brown is often asked if he had two games to win and could pick between Rocker and Leiter or Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler, who starred on Vanderbilt’s 2014 national championship team, which duo would he choose?

It’s a question Brown doesn’t know how to answer, an impossible choice. But after watching Rocker and Leiter consistently carve up opposing hitters all season long, you would be forgiven from falling victim to recency bias and choosing the latest Commodores duo to take college baseball by storm. 

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