Kumar Rocker’s Uncharted Destiny

Draft day is a little more than a month away, and at this point in the process front offices have their big boards almost ready to go. While the ’22 class isn’t deep in pitching, compared to recent years, there are intriguing prospects in the first round that teams won’t bat an eyelash selecting.

Dylan Lesko, Blade Tidwell and Peyton Pallette are a few names that leap off the page. Each bring a unique skillset that could grace big league rotations in the near future. Each have also had their moments in the sun. Their first round performance moments. While Lesko might become 2021 draft’s Jackson Jobe of this year’s crop, I don’t see the next Clayton Kershaw, Jacob DeGrom, or Gerrit Cole coming out of here. There is, though, one name I think is the most intriguing, if not, the most polarizing in the whole bunch.

Kumar Rocker.

Don’t do a double take. Yes, Kumar Rocker.

Up until after the 2021 season, Rocker was a rock star in college baseball. He was a 6’5″ flamethrower with comparisons to Bob Gibson, C.C. Sabathia and a prime years Carlos Zambrano. At Vanderbilt, he was a three-year standout, where he posted a 2.89 ERA in 42 games (39 starts), led the Commodores to a national champion in 2019 and was named MVP of that same College World Series. The now 22-year-old is still considered one of the best College World Series MVPs of the past 20 years. That memorable postseason he rang up 44 strikeouts in 28 innings, including a 19-strikeout no-hitter in the NCAA super regional against Duke. In four postseason starts, his ERA was an astonishing 0.96.

When former Vanderbilt teammate, and current Texas Rangers prospect Jack Leiter joined the conversation of the best college pitcher in 2021, there was the possibility we’d see a first-ever Vanderbilt back-to-back picks in the top-three. Unfortunately, last year’s draft didn’t quite shake out like that. When catcher Henry Davis out of Louisville was selected with the number one overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates, everyone’s boards changed. Suddenly, the Rangers grabbed Leiter quick with the second selection. That left the Tigers at pick three as an obvious destination for Rocker, if they didn’t go with a hitting prospect. After all, they did need more bats in their system.

With a pitcher-heavy presence on the farm, names like Marcelo Mayer, Jordan Lawler and Brady House seemed to make more sense for the rebuilding club. But those who have followed the draft process would know, Tigers GM Al Avila didn’t scout Rocker all that much. He and his scouts were seen at another pitcher’s games the most out of any prospect, and that prospect was high school star Jackson Jobe. Once Avila selected Jobe, that’s when things shifted into topsy-turvy.

Like a scene out of the Kevin Costner movie Draft Day, many wondered: was Kumar Rocker about to fall? And most importantly, why?

Suddenly, everyone’s mock drafts were thrown in the trash. Big boards fell off war room walls. The stock market plummeted. Mass chaos erupted. Okay, it wasn’t that dramatic. But, what the hell happened? Before we knew it names that weren’t considered top-10s were called: Frank Mozzicato to KC, Benny Montgomery to the Rockies, Sam Bachman to the Angels.

Really? Sam Bachman?

An all right pitcher, sure, but he was no Kumar Rocker. He didn’t have the projectability. He didn’t have that swagger, nor the unassuming fear Rocker had struck in opposing hitters. Sam Bachman was a what most would call a “safe pick”. And he was paid like one, too. He was offered and signed a $3.85 million signing bonus, when the pick value was just shy under $5 million. It was a bargain pick— let’s face it.

Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong.

Before anyone could pick their mocks out of the trash and reassess and figure where Rocker would eventually land, the New York Mets swooped in and snagged him with the 10th overall selection. Rocker to the Mets felt like Simon to Garfunkel or tomato soup to grill cheese. A match made in heaven. Everyone could picture Rocker in New York. And just like that, billboards with Rocker’s face were scattered everywhere in New York with the simple tag line reading: “The Rock“. All worries were gone about why he fell in the draft were gone and the doubts were swept away under the rug.

Fast forward to the draftee signing period a month or so later, the Mets foundation around popular selection started to crumble. While it was reported Rocker and the Mets had verbally agreed on a $6 million signing bonus, which was $1.4 million above the slot value for the 10th pick, Rocker had not actually signed with them.

Various reports came out saying Rocker wanted more money, the number to which he verbally agreed to was wrong, and even a couple saying that Rocker could be signed and traded away. In the end, the reports were all a farce. What actually happened was the Mets reviewed his medical records and got cold feet. He in fact had some health concerns, which his agent Scott Boras has remained tight-lipped on to this day.

Whatever it was, it was serious enough for the Mets to forgo signing their star first round pick, thus thwarting him from making his childhood dreams of playing professional baseball a reality. Even today, Rocker himself neglected to speak of what happened.

Most thought he’d return to Vanderbilt for the 2022 season, or give professional baseball in Japan a try. It’s not unusual for a draftee to sign with another league. Former 2018 first round draft pick Carter Stewart joined the NPB in Japan after he was drafted. The Atlanta Braves selected the high school pitcher with the eighth overall pick, but didn’t come with the money bag he was expecting.

Due to a wrist injury they discovered, they offered Stewart below slot value, which turned him sour on turning pro, and he decided to enroll at Eastern Florida State College instead. After a solid season, he took a six-year $7 million deal with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of the NPB, where he remains to this day.

Rocker didn’t want to go that route. He made it very clear from the start that he wanted to play in Major League Baseball. Instead, the Georgia native remained quiet for 10-11 months, until recently. Last month, news broke that he had signed a minor league contract with the Tri-City ValleyCats of the Independent Frontier League. While it’s not confirmed, it’s probably safe to say Rocker took those months to rehab whatever injury he had that prevented him from signing with the Mets last year.

Nevertheless, this past Saturday he put all of that behind him and pitched his first live game in almost a year in front of a sellout crowed of 4,088 at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium. The stadium had a slew of major league scouts, curious to see if Rocker still had the stuff— the tools that made him so great. The injury, the unsigned status, the false assumptions— it didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered to him was playing again. In four innings of work, he threw 60 pitches for 43 strikes, struck out six and didn’t allow a single walk, but did give up two runs on two hits. It was also recently confirmed that his velocity remained in the mid-to-upper 90s, like it had in college.

While Scott Boras continues to make sure his client stays away from media and any interviews that could hurt his draft status, those around him speak volumes of the prospect.

Former pro and Tri-City manager Pete Incaviglia said, “He had good command. I think he made one mistake. Everything else was really good. I was thoroughly impressed. For him to go out there and pitch the way he did with the command he had for not pitching for a year, you’ve got to tip your hat.”

And when the questions came about Rocker’s 2022 draft status, Incaviglia didn’t shy away from those questions either.

“He’s very intense when he pitches, but he’s very laid-back and you hardly know his heart’s beating when he’s in the clubhouse,” Incaviglia said. “We’re fortunate to have him. We’re trying to get him ready to get to the big leagues … not to just get drafted but to be ready to pitch in the big leagues when he does get drafted.”

Currently four games in and 14 innings pitched, Rocker maintains a 2.57 ERA with 22 strikeouts only two walks thrown. He’s starting to reappear in more and more mock drafts as well. And once again the hype is building back up. The hype that made him the most exciting prospect in 2021.

Bob Gibson once said, “You’ve got to have an attitude if you’re going to go far in this game.” Maybe that’s why Kumar Rocker won’t go down without a fight.

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