Leiter, Rocker make Spring Training statements

Top pitching prospects, former Vandy teammates get first taste of Cactus League play

March 1st, 2023

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- In college at Vanderbilt, Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker never got to pitch in the same game. 

They sometimes pitched on the same day, due to rainouts or doubleheaders, but the two co-aces mostly appeared as Friday and Saturday night starters during the 2021 collegiate baseball season. But on Tuesday afternoon, when the Rangers scored a 6-4 win over the Rockies at Surprise Stadium, Leiter and Rocker  -- now reunited in the Rangers’ farm system -- both made their 2023 Cactus League debuts out of the bullpen.

“I don't think we ever pitched in the same game, so obviously that's cool,” said Leiter, who is ranked as the club's No. 2 prospect by MLB Pipeline. “It's great to have him here, a familiar face. It's been special and I'm looking forward to where it goes in the future.”

While Leiter did appear in Cactus League games in ‘22, Rocker was getting his first action against big leaguers. Rocker only got his first taste of affiliated baseball back in October -- with the Surprise Saguaros of the Arizona Fall League -- just months after he was selected No. 3 overall in the MLB Draft. 

But pitching in Surprise Stadium notably felt different for the right-hander this time around. 

“It was a second time kind of being in that stadium and environment,” Rocker said. “It felt a little bit more official that way and I felt a little more comfortable. I definitely felt better throwing the ball out there.” 

Leiter faced the minimum in a scoreless sixth against the Rockies. The right-hander hit the first batter he faced, but catcher Sandy Leon threw out the runner trying to steal second. Leiter then got a swinging strikeout and a groundout to the shortstop to end the inning.

Rocker, the club's No. 8 prospect, also faced the minimum in the eighth inning, giving up a leadoff single before getting a flyout to right field and a 4-3 double play to get out of the inning clean.

“I thought they threw well,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “Both have great stuff, and it's good to get them out there and get their feet wet here today. It’s only gonna get better with those two and I personally was looking forward to seeing them myself. Both I thought handled himself well, and the leadoff man got on, but the important thing is how they handled that and they handled it well.”

For Leiter, 2022 was a year full of adjustments as he went from Vanderbilt straight to Double-A Frisco. He posted a 5.54 ERA in 92 2/3 innings, hitting more than a few speed bumps along the way.

Leiter said he learned a lot about his processes and routines in his first professional season, and even though he wishes it went better stats-wise, the learning experiences from the ups and downs will help him moving forward in his career.

This spring especially, Leiter is soaking up the wealth of knowledge around the Rangers’ clubhouse and coaching staff.

“I think just overall, it's been a lot more comfortable as a whole this spring being in big league camp,” Leiter said. “It feels a lot more comfortable. I felt like I had a really good offseason and was really productive. So I feel really good about where everything's at. … It's like an endless bank of knowledge that we have in the clubhouse and on the field with obviously the Madduxes [Greg and Mike]. I think I've learned a lot. I’m just trying to listen and quietly just observe as they go about their business.”

For Rocker, it’s just about getting back into the swing of a full-season schedule. But with his fastball sitting around 93-95 mph, with the slider hovering in the low 80s, he acknowledges that he’s as comfortable as he’s been in a long time on the mound.

“He’s going to be exciting to watch,” Bochy said of Rocker prior to his appearance on Tuesday. “This guy’s got dominating stuff, tremendous slider. I’m looking forward to watching him in a few games. He’s a tremendous talent and I think he’s going to be on a fast pace now once he gets going in the Minor Leagues.”

In all, Leiter and Rocker are just two pieces of the Rangers’ best crop of pitching prospects in a decade, including Top 100 prospects Owen White (No. 66) and Brock Porter (No. 94). And the silver lining is that they don’t even have to be rushed to the big leagues thanks to the additions of Jacob deGrom, Andrew Heaney and Nathan Eovaldi this offseason.

“These guys will let you know when they’re ready,” Bochy said of the Rangers’ young pitchers. “They will. It's fun to watch how that progression happens. [The quality pitching at the big league level] does allow you not to have that desire to go ahead and bring them up if they're not quite ready. But we’re not looking to slow play them. When we think they're ready, you'll see them.”