The college baseball season has hit the regional tournament time of the season, with regional finals and the CWS right around the corner. Last year’s loss of the CWS impacted Omaha significantly with a loss of revenue for the downtown area and the businesses surrounding TD Ameritrade. Along with that financial impact on the city was the impact on player’s draft stock that this year’s draftees are feeling now with fewer opportunities to impress scouts in 2020. Scouts missed out on players raising their game to another level when their team needed it most. Losses in at-bats and innings have scouts filling in the blank spot where the 2020 season would go with a small sample size and a heavier pen on 2021 performance. As it stands now, the last time we as fans have seen a player step his game up in the NCAA regionals and on the College World Series stage was in 2019. That season a young pitcher took his rather large frame and ran a buzzsaw through the field on the way to another Vanderbilt championship.
Favorite moment from the 2019 College Baseball Season— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) February 7, 2020
Kumar Rocker with a no hitter thru 6.2 innings in the NCAA Super Regional...
Duke calls an "Offensive Conference" (to mess w/ Rocker's rhythm). Rocker gets the K & screams at Duke's bench ️
Kumar throws a 19K No Hitter pic.twitter.com/Dum074XP4U
Had you asked people who will be the #1 pick in the 2021 draft following that 2019 CWS, most would have said Kumar Rocker. After all, the 6’5’’, 250 pound freshman had just won the CWS Most Outstanding Player award and had tossed a 19 strikeout no-hitter in the regionals against Duke. He looked like the next coming of Stephen Strasburg as a starting pitcher and the no doubt #1 pick in the 2021 draft. The lost 2020 season for Rocker was like everyone else’s, an incomplete. The right-hander made just three starts, striking out 28 in 15 innings, but there were some control bumps early in the year, and he didn’t get a chance to right that ship and build on the season. It seems as though those memories of ‘20 stuck in more heads than a dominant late-season 2019 performance in a full college season.
The prospect fatigue has clicked in for Rocker, who has now been a top-ranked draft prospect for four years. Ranked as the 13th best draft prospect in 2018 by Baseball America during his high school senior year, Rocker passed on signing to build his stock at the premier college development factory in the country. He quickly made that move look like a wise one in ‘19, but the lost 2020, the up and down ‘21, and improvement by others have pushed him down the ranks.
That prospect fatigue he is dealing with doesn’t mean there are no warts in Rocker’s game, as there certainly are issues. This season he’s battled through some arm fatigue that saw his velocity dip down to 89-91 mph, a considerable drop from his usual 94-96 mph range. The fastball features plenty of life to it, leading to control issues, which Alabama and Arkansas took advantage of in games where he got roughed up. At the top of the zone, Rocker’s fastball can look unhittable, but he can have trouble repeating his long mechanics and flatten out in the middle. In 2019 he would have just leaned in with his slider and looked to dominate with his two-pitch mix. That’s something that he hasn’t done as much this year, perhaps to showcase that he has a full arsenal, and teams are starting to lay off more and wait on the fastball to do damage to it.
Showing a larger arsenal this year than leaning on just his fastball and slider, Rocker flashes as a complete future pitcher. The slider is a major league-ready pitch and probably his best pitch even ahead of the fastball. At its best, it’s a 70-grade pitch, the type of pitch he can throw in any count and dominate with thanks to a feel for it that is even better than his fastball control. The grip he uses offers a tumble on the pitch that is similar to a curveball for many, offering more vertical tumble than a horizontal movement that many curveballs have. He describes the pitch with bullet gyro spin, which gives it the velocity and late tumble out of the zone, tunneling with the fastball. The velocity comes in the mid-80s with 2200 rpm of spin it gets deep into the zone before the tumble, which makes it a difficult pitch for hitters to recognize. Next to an upper 90s fastball, it can be so explosive that lesser hitters can’t see and must start their swing early to prepare for the fastball only to go flail over the top of the slider.
The fastball is an average pitch in the game today despite the velo, which can top out at 98 mph. That sounds crazy, but it lacks elite spin, tipping the scales in the 2000-2200 rpm rate, which doesn’t carry through the zone as much as it could at a higher spin rate. It’s a similar fastball to current Royals prospect Jackson Kowar. The velo is good, and the control is better than average but the command is just average, which can lead to some hard contact despite the higher velocity readings. Teammate Jack Leiter has more spin on the fastball, getting more carry through the zone, allowing it to play up even if the velocity on the pitch for both his and Rocker average 94 mph. When Rocker has the velocity and command working the fastball is a plus pitch in the 60 range, but that lack of spin and the difficulty to command it at times can make it hittable at the lower velo level. Old school scouting would see a 6’5 250 lbs body and say he will have the upper velocity for years, but we know that’s not always the case. A tick or two lost can make that fastball an average offering pretty quickly if he can’t maintain it in the starter role, leveling out his ceiling in the process.
This season Rocker has featured the cutter and changeup more than in years past. For a pitch that hasn’t been used much, the change has given some decent looks. It flashes as a better-than-average pitch. It still lacks consistency, but the low spin rate is impressive, with a 1530 average rpm. That low spin helps give it a little larger vertical break and should play up to at least average with more usage. This and the cutter are the pitches he will have to use more often in the pro ball to get opposite-side hitters. The fact that it can profile as average is a good start. The added cutter features some late horizontal break with a bit more velocity in the upper 80s; differentiating it from the slider though the grips aren’t all that different, could help induce some weaker contact.
Kumar Rocker, the highest ranked incoming freshman in college baseball, looks scary-good in that @VandyBaseball uniform. Huge RHP showing impressive fastball command at 92-94, bumped a 97. Slider has excellent tilt, and here's a good 85 mph change for a K. pic.twitter.com/xxEahxa8yb— Aaron Fitt (@aaronfitt) October 20, 2018
When we look at the draft, it appears Jordan Lawler or Marcelo Mayer have raised their stock to the top two picks. The Orioles are likely looking to play for a bargain hitter at five in a similar way to what they did with Heston Kjerstad last year, Rocker isn’t the likely pick for that reason. If Rocker gets past the Red Sox at four, then falling to the Royals at seven seems somewhat realistic. In that case, it will come down to what the Diamondbacks choose one pick ahead of the Royals. Should Arizona pass, then Rocker could shockingly be there for the plucking, which seemed inconceivable just two years ago. Then again, Rocker has the skill to throw another no-hitter in the regionals or win MOP again, which could slap scouting directors in the face again. The past projections of a future stud #1 or 2 level pitcher are still there, and if six teams pass, they could be overthinking this one.