Being the most famous amateur baseball player in the world is probably pretty dang cool and it’s certainly preferable to being completely unknown, but it’s not without some drawbacks. On the one hand, now-ex Vanderbilt starting pitcher Kumar Rocker has enjoyed fame and adulation as he helped lead his team to the finals of the College World Series in both 2019 and 2021, winning it all the first time around, getting MOP honors, and throwing a 19-strikeout super regional elimination game no-hitter along the way (among other achievements). On the other hand, the years of pre-draft scrutiny mean that being taken 10th overall by the New York Mets on Sunday night is viewed as a real disappointment because it wasn’t that long ago that people thought he could go at No. 1 to the Pirates.
Well, the Mets aren’t sad about it at least. After Rocker slipped and fell down the board in the early stage of the draft, past his Vandy teammate Jack Leiter and three other pitchers, the team currently leading the NL East by 3.5 games was pretty psyched to be able to snatch him up.
“We’re still so elated here—happy—that Kumar got to us. We really thought there was very little chance that this would happen, a pitcher of this talent and his portfolio,” Mets vice president of amateur and international scouting Tommy Tanous said after the team made the pick. “This doesn’t happen very often. We feel very fortunate that his name and magnet was still on the board. Kumar was more of a dream than anything else.”
Obviously, every team that’s ever made a draft pick has said nice things about him on draft night, but watching highlights of the big Commodore striking out overmatched kids as he dominated college ball makes it pretty easy to get pumped and jacked as well, if you’re a Mets fan. Rocker’s got a killer slider and a bunch of accolades and a badass name, and it’s easy to imagine him being a star as soon as he sets foot in Queens.
“I’ve exhausted everything in college baseball, from the highs to the lows,” Rocker said. “Moving to New York, it’s a bigger spotlight. When I get to the point and that chance, I’m going to try to make the most of it.
“That’s what I feel like I was made for.”
But, again, four pitchers were picked ahead of him, and because of that, Rocker enters the pros not as an anointed savior of a struggling franchise but as a pitcher who was clearly doubted by many and needs to prove them wrong. While some of his draft-board fall might be because teams are cheap and he’s going to get paid quite nicely, outside observers had also noticeably lowered him in their prospect rankings as of late. Looking at his college stats alone, there’s no glaring reason why this should have happened. You can throw out his very limited 2020 because of COVID, but comparing his just-completed season to 2019, Rocker pitched in more innings, had a lower ERA, a lower WHIP, and a better strikeout rate. He even maintained his undefeated mark in the NCAA Tournament until a lackluster showing in a final game in which Vandy didn’t score anyway.
Nevertheless a cloud of skepticism gathered around Rocker this year and transformed the expectations about how he could perform in the bigs. It’s not because of his results, but because of the way Rocker’s stuff changed after heavy demands on his arm forced scouts to question whether or not he could handle an MLB workload. FanGraphs has a nice breakdown of how Rocker’s fastball lost some of its power over the course of the 2021 college regular season. In his first few appearances, he was averaging around 96 and peaking at 98 and 99 mph. But after a 116-pitch outing against South Carolina, the radar gun numbers took a worrying fall, down to a peak of 92 and an average of 90 in the following game. Aside from the inconsistency in velocity, those looking for a reason not to draft Rocker could also point to a rise in walks from his freshman season to his 2021 from 1.9 per 9 up to 2.9. Combine a couple wrong-direction (if small-sample) trends with the signing bonus he was going to command, and maybe he’s not such a sure thing, especially for a team like the Pirates, who need sure things.
There’s no such thing as a perfect prospect—certainly not when you’re talking about a guy as hyped and consequently picked-apart as Rocker has been throughout his college career. But that’s why the minor leagues exist. Rocker will have ample opportunity over however many starts it takes to beef up his arm and give it the tools it needs to last through the long grind of an MLB summer and make him a legit ace. Or he’ll end up being like a No. 3 starter. Or a fringe roster guy. I don’t really know, and nobody else does either! But it’s exciting that the Mets took him. As superficial as it sounds, there’s just something more fun about spending a couple years following through your team’s system a guy named Rocker who’s already been on ESPN than, for example, a high school kid named Jackson Jobe. That doesn’t say anything about either’s future potential, but at this point, the vibes are really all we’ve got.