Vanderbilt Aces Stay Hot

When it comes to college baseball, having a Friday night ace on your pitching staff for a three-game weekend series is critical in setting the tone. For top-ranked Vanderbilt University, pitchers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter have established themselves as the strongest one-two punch in college baseball this season. In fact, they have both been so dominant that they could be the first two players off the board in the MLB draft this July. It would be the first time ever that two players from the same team are drafted first and second overall. But who are Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, and how have they been destroying their competitors in the Southeastern Conference (SEC)?

Standing at 6 feet 5 inches and weighing in at 245 pounds, Rocker is a powerful right-handed pitcher with a fastball that can touch as high as 98 miles per hour, as well as a devastating slider and improving changeup. Rocker was the eighth-ranked high school prospect from the 2018 high school recruiting class. He turned down the chance of being a first-round pick and a potential multimillion-dollar signing bonus to go to Vanderbilt. Rocker immediately made an impact for the Commodores in their 2019 national championship run, throwing a nineteen strikeout no-hitter in the Super Regionals against Duke University, which helped him go 4-0 with a 0.96 earned run average (ERA) in the NCAA tournament. These statistics earned him the 2019 College World Series Most Outstanding Player award. Rocker turned his strong rookie campaign into a great start to the 2020 season, striking out 28 hitters in 15 innings before the season was shut down due to Covid-19. The 2021 season has seen Rocker continue to polish his resume, winning all seven of his starts and striking out 61 hitters in 43 innings of work, while only allowing four runs. In a normal year, he could be a frontrunner for the Golden Spikes Award or the National Pitcher of the Year Award. However, his teammate Jack Leiter has had something to say about that.

Rocker was blessed with the size and athletic gifts of his father, former Washington Redskins Lineman Tracy Rocker. Similarly, Jack Leiter is the son of Al Leiter, a 19-year MLB veteran and a two-time All-Star. Years of work with his father helped Leiter develop picture-perfect mechanics in order to optimize his 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound frame. The right-handed Leiter pitches a similar style to his teammate Rocker, pounding the strike zone with his mid-to-upper 90-mile-per-hour fastball, along with a power curveball, cutter and changeup. Leiter’s career also followed a comparable path to Rocker’s. Leiter chose Vanderbilt over an offer to be drafted in the first round by multiple Major League teams after his terrific 2019 high school senior season, where he led Delbarton to the New Jersey State Championship. Leiter came to Vanderbilt for the 2020 season and was superb in his four appearances, striking out 22 hitters in 15 innings. Unfortunately, the shortened season did not give him the chance to face any of the vaunted powerhouse programs of the SEC. In his first SEC start of 2021, Leiter struck out 16 South Carolina Gamecocks on his way to a no-hitter. He followed that start with seven no-hit innings against the University of Missouri the following weekend, before his no-hit streak ended in the fifth inning against Louisiana State University (LSU) this past Friday. In total, Leiter did not allow a hit for 20 and two-thirds innings, dating back to his start against Oklahoma State. With 71 punchouts in just 42 innings, Leiter has given up only two earned runs in his seven wins this season, and it seems he has no plans of slowing down. 

While graduating high school in different years, both Rocker and Leiter are eligible to be selected in the upcoming draft. Typically, players who decline to be drafted or sign with a professional organization out of high school must wait until the end of their junior year of college to be able to be drafted again, since they must be 21 to reenter the draft. But, Leiter is old for his grade and will turn 21 later this month, qualifying him to be chosen in the 2021 MLB Draft. Both Rocker and Leiter have dominated thus far in 2021, causing many scouts to reminisce about the 2011 UCLA team, where Gerritt Cole and Trevor Bauer would pitch on back-to-back nights before being drafted first and third overall. 

This year, there are many other talented players vying for the top spot in the draft, like high school shortstops Jordan Lawlor and Marcelo Meyer, to go along with college players Matt McLain from UCLA and Jaden Hill from LSU. Still, if Rocker and Leiter keep pitching in this fashion, they could become locks for the top two slots. If so, it will be a tough decision for the Pittsburgh Pirates on whether to go with Rocker, for his excellent track record at Vanderbilt, or with Leiter, for his currently electrifying play. Either way, it will be incredible to watch these two young stars down the stretch of the college season, as they undoubtedly have their eyes on Omaha and a chance at a College World Series title.