Rangers pick fireballer Rocker at No. 3 overall

July 18th, 2022

ARLINGTON -- On Aug. 1, 2021, at 5:01 p.m., Kumar Rocker’s life changed.

The former Vanderbilt ace, one of the most dominant pitchers in college baseball from 2019-21, was drafted 10th overall by the Mets last year. But he didn't sign at the mandated deadline after the Mets' review of his medical information raised concerns about the right-hander's shoulder and elbow.

“It was just work every day [after Aug. 1],” Rocker said. “I got to work after that. Walk by faith and not by fear. Hard work pays off at the end of the day. ... It’s waking up every day and just really talking to the big man [God] and getting through it.”

Almost a year later, the Rangers selected Rocker, a high-ceiling right-hander and one of the biggest names in the 2022 class, with the No. 3 overall pick in the MLB Draft on Sunday night. Mere hours after the pick, Rocker and the Rangers agreed on a contract with a bonus of $5.2 million, a source told MLB Pipeline's Jim Callis. Once signed, Rocker will join a Rangers farm system topped by Jack Leiter, a former Vanderbilt teammate.

Rocker becomes the fifth player to be taken in the top 10 overall in two separate editions of the MLB Draft, and the first since Mark Appel in 2012 and 2013. Also holding that distinction are Danny Goodwin, Wade Townsend, and J.D. Drew.

“We’re extremely comfortable with the medical review that our medical team has done,” general manager Chris Young said. “Obviously, Kumar has been under the care of one of the leading orthopedic surgeons in the world. He’s been in great supervision throughout his rehab, he's been pitching healthy. We're very comfortable with the medical review and that's why we drafted him.”

Earlier this month, it was reported that Rocker did undergo surgery in September 2021 after teams received medical records.

“We didn't know what Kumar would look like coming out of surgery,” Young said. “I think he answered a lot of questions in terms of our medical team and the review they were able to do. I think we're very thrilled with the selection tonight.”

The 22-year-old opted not to return to Vanderbilt for his senior season, instead signing with the Tri-City ValleyCats of the independent Frontier League in May. Rocker made his ValleyCats debut on June 5 -- in front of a host of Major League scouts -- and sat in the mid-to-upper 90s with his fastball, topping out at 99 mph on the scouts' radar guns.

Director of amateur scouting Kip Fagg said the organization’s comfort with Rocker “goes back years,” though he did see Rocker’s first start for the ValleyCats in May.  

“I’ve known him since he was a young kid in high school and through his Vandy years, obviously last year especially,” Fagg said. “I probably saw him seven times [last year]. Then getting up there and feeling comfortable when he was in the independent league, we felt very comfortable with the stuff -- it’s actually probably a better version of Kumar right now than it was in college.”

At Vanderbilt, Rocker led the Commodores to a national championship in 2019. He pitched a 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke in the Super Regionals and won Game 2 of the College World Series finals against Michigan with 6 1/3 innings of one-run, 11-strikeout baseball. Rocker was named the College World Series' Most Outstanding Player.

Two years later, Rocker helped Vanderbilt reach the College World Series again, though the Commodores ultimately fell to Mississippi State in the finals. Rocker went 14-4 with a 2.73 ERA and led the nation with 179 strikeouts, tied with Leiter.

Leiter, Rocker's co-ace on the Vanderbilt staff, was drafted eight picks ahead of Rocker in 2021 -- No. 2 overall by the Rangers -- and is now the team's top prospect and the No. 16 prospect in baseball per MLB Pipeline.

Fagg said he believed Leiter and Rocker were 1A and 1B on his Draft board last year, noting that he would have thought it was impossible to get both in the Rangers’ system.

“I think they’re two tremendously talented players and great competitors who had success at a very high level,” Young added. “I think any organization would be lucky to have two players of that caliber, and thrilled that they're both going to be Texas Rangers.”

“I'm looking forward to learning from that dude again,” Rocker said. “The things he brought to the table with just being at Vanderbilt, he just had a professional mindset and he did professional things in and out of the facility. I learned a lot from him, and I use a lot moving forward. Just being around him and seeing how he works and moves, it's really special.”

Rocker is the son of former NFL player and College Football Hall of Famer Tracy Rocker, who was a defensive tackle at Auburn in the late 1980s, played for Washington from 1989-90 and is now the Eagles' defensive line coach.

Fagg emphasized that knowing the person and family for so many years made the organization all the more comfortable with selecting Rocker at No. 3.

“We're super excited to have a frontline-type starter with the Texas Rangers,” Fagg said. “He’s just an elite competitor, a guy that lays it all on the line every time he goes out there with plus-plus stuff. There's not many guys that come around like this guy, that’s as physically gifted and competitive and driven as he is. It's hard to find a bad thing about Kumar.”

It’s expected that the Rangers will likely sign Rocker under slot value, which will help the organization in the following days of the Draft. Texas doesn’t have a second or third rounder due to the offseason signings of Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, so the organization may now be able to go over slot on a player that falls in the Draft due to signability concerns.

Last year, when the Rangers selected Leiter at No. 2 overall, they gave the right-hander the highest bonus in the 2021 Draft at $7,922,000. This year, Texas’ slot value for the No. 3 pick sits at $7,587,600, with a total Draft pool of $9,640,700.

Young noted that not having those second and third rounders did not affect the strategy in the first round at all.

“We took the best player we thought was the best fit for the Texas Rangers,” he said.