The consensus No. 1 overall prospect in the 2021 Draft, Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker had a spectacular freshman season but didn't get much of an opportunity for an encore.
After throwing a 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke in the NCAA super regionals and winning Most Outstanding Player honors at the College World Series to help the Commodores win their second national title, Rocker worked just 15 innings last spring before the coronavirus ended the college season. He didn't pitch in any summer leagues either, so it has been six months and counting since we've seen his mid-90s fastball and overpowering slider in game action.
Rocker returned to Vanderbilt in August for the start of his junior year. In a Zoom interview with MLB Pipeline last Thursday, he discussed what he has been up in the last six months and what lies ahead in his future. This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
MLB Pipeline: When we last saw you, it was March and Southeastern Conference play was about to start and obviously didn't as everything kind of came to an abrupt end. What have you been doing for the last six months, both from a baseball standpoint and a non-baseball standpoint?
Rocker: From a baseball standpoint, pretty much sitting at home. I found a nice gym and went to that for a couple of weeks. I have a teammate who lives there with me. And from outside of that, I took a summer class and then really just hung out with my family. It's really the first time we've been together for a long time.
MLB Pipeline: You were telling me off camera before we started this that you were back in school. How nice was it to be able to get back to school, back with your teammates, back in the swing of things doing baseball activities?
Rocker: I think it's something everyone looked forward to. For me, it's just being around the teammates, going out to eat. That was just nice having access to that.
MLB Pipeline: Have you guys started fall activities for baseball? Is it going to be fall practice as normal, or is it somewhat modified?
Rocker: For two weeks, we've been in individual group work. So it's a limited number of people in the weight room, on the field, et cetera. As of yesterday, it was day two of our official fall practice and it's been going smooth.
MLB Pipeline: I assume it won't be like in the past where you'll scrimmage other teams, but Vanderbilt likes to intrasquad, right? Coach [Tim] Corbin likes to test you guys against each other?
Rocker: Oh yeah, we love intrasquad. Early competition.
MLB Pipeline: Have you been on the mound in any kind of simulated game setting yet? Because you haven't pitched in something resembling game action since March, right?
Rocker: Right. So we've been throwing bullpens since we got here. And then I think our first live is coming up this weekend or next weekend.
MLB Pipeline: How much are you looking forward to that? I guess you didn't pitch for six months. When's the last time that happened?
Rocker: In quarantine, we've had some live batters, but it's different being in the stadium, facing a different kind of competition, et cetera. And I'm really excited for that. That's what I came here for.
MLB Pipeline: I remember your dad as an All-American defensive lineman at Auburn and he played in the NFL. Did you ever consider football as a path? You're obviously very physical (6-foot-4, 255 pounds) for a baseball guy and it seems like you could have gone that route perhaps if you had wanted.
Rocker: I did consider football. I played into my sophomore year in year [of high school] and I really enjoyed it, of course, but my family, they weren't going to push me to a certain sport. So I chose baseball and hopefully it works out for me.
MLB Pipeline: Well, it seems like it will. I'm sure you've heard, probably since going back to when you got to college, there were people projecting you might be the No. 1 overall pick in 2021. And then you have the 19-strikeout no-hitter and the College World Series and that continues to build. Is it going to be easier to deal with that kind of discussion this time around after being a highly touted Draft guy already in your high school career?
Rocker: It's easy to ignore it. I think the second time through it is because I think the Draft process for me in high school started a little bit earlier and I kind of got a grasp on it, say junior, senior year, I could have done a little bit of things differently. Then coming to college, I feel like I get to redo it all with the knowledge that I do know from high school. Yeah, I think I've kept it in my ears since I've been here, for sure.
MLB Pipeline: How tough of a decision was it to pick Vanderbilt over pro ball? Obviously with the way the Draft played out, you'd made a decision that signability wasn't going to line up because you went in the 38th round and you weren't going to sign in the 38th round. But how tough of a decision was it because you could have been paid a lot of money to play pro ball versus getting to get what is probably the premier program in college baseball.
Rocker: I think the biggest thing was being around that group of friends that did go pro out of high school and seeing them, but having the opportunity to come make another new team. I enjoy the team environment, et cetera, and it really wasn't a hard decision for me, honestly. I do take pride in Vanderbilt.
MLB Pipeline: How much have you interacted with former Vanderbilt players who have gone onto the big leagues? A lot of guys still have lockers there, right, like the David Prices of the world? And it seems like a lot of guys live around Nashville or at least visit Nashville. Have you been able to pick the brains of guys like David Price or other Vanderbilt pitchers who come back?
Rocker: Those guys, they're around a lot and they don't act a certain type of way. They just act like normal people. They just enjoy being around us. People like Sonny Gray, Walker Buehler. They're always around to talk and it's always nice.
MLB Pipeline: How much better do you think you've gotten as a pitcher In your two years of Vanderbilt from where you were coming out of high school to where you are now?
Rocker: I can't really put like a number on anything like that, but I think from natural improvement to just my mental side of the game, I think I've improved incredibly.
MLB Pipeline: Have you ever had better stuff than the day you had the 19-strikeout no-hitter? Did you realize that something good was about to happen when you were warming up or early in that game?
Rocker: I think the environment and the team that we were playing and my teammates around me allowed me to throw the 19-strikeout no-hitter, buddy. But I think there's days I've had better stuff, for sure.
MLB Pipeline: A better slider? Because all 19 strikeouts were on the slider, do I remember that right?
Rocker: I'm pretty sure, yeah.
MLB Pipeline: I like to ask guys to break down their repertoire. How would you break down what you throw and how good it is and what you may or may not need to improve with it right now.
Rocker: Fastball, I think the biggest thing is command, obviously. Then for my slider, it's keep that where it's at, honestly. And then my changeup, throughout the summer and then even these bullpens coming up, I think if it's improved a lot I can throw it consistently, for sure. And then I'm working on a cutter. I'd say it's fastball, slider mainly but the changeup's definitely there. I'm excited to break that out and then the cutter's coming along too.
MLB Pipeline: What do you think is the better pitch, your fastball or your slider?
Rocker: I'd probably say my fastball. I don't think I use it enough for people to be sitting on it.
MLB Pipeline: Even in college right now, you know you can overpower guys. How hard is to balance, look, I know for my development I need to work on my changeup as opposed to it's my third-best pitch? And I might be doing guys a favor if I throw too many changeups. How many changeups do you throw in a typical game.
Rocker: I'd say probably around five to eight. And I throw it in a timely manner, usually when I'm ahead in the count. But this year, I think I'll be able to break it out any type of count.
MLB Pipeline: What kind of changeup is it? Is it a circle change or any type of particular grip?
Rocker: Circle change, on the opposite side of the two seams.
MLB Pipeline: Could your freshman year have gone much better than it did? I'm sure when you go to Vanderbilt, you dream it'll be great, we're going to have the opportunity to probably play in the College World Series. And you go out and throw a 19-strikeout no-hitter in an elimination game in the super regionals, and then in Omaha you're named Most Outstanding Player and win another elimination game in the finals against Michigan.
Rocker: Freshman year was fun. I think the reason all that happened was because I was simply a freshman. I was just sitting there trying to honestly make the older kids happy, trying to make my team happy, trying to win for them. And then all that came along with it.
MLB Pipeline: You certainly succeeded at doing that. You guys looked like you were primed to make a run at defending that title, and then the season abruptly ended. Obviously, there's a lot of tough things about COVID, but how tough was that? To find out a month into season, hey, the season's over. There's no College World Series. That's it.
Rocker: I think it was tough for everybody. The biggest thing for us was the work we put in the fall and then for it to get cut short in the spring knowing what we had on the table. So it was pretty big.
MLB Pipeline: I always like to ask guys their impressions of other players. You're obviously a candidate to go very near the top or at the top of the 2021 Draft, and so is your teammate, Jack Leiter. What would be your scouting report on Jack and what's impressed you about him.
Rocker: The biggest thing with Jack is just the five pitches he throws and how consistent his mechanics are. The first bullpen Jack threw, I was standing next to Brownie [Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown]. I think he threw right after me, and I just looked at Brownie. I was like, 'congratulations, that's the one right there.' From the time he got here, he was just a really good pitcher.
MLB Pipeline: You were on the high school showcase circuit, faced a lot of top guys. You've been in the SEC, the College World Series, Vanderbilt intrasquads against top-five picks like J.J. Bleday and Austin Martin. Who's the best hitter you think you've faced to this point of your career and what stood out about him?
Rocker: Of course, I'm going to stay with Vanderbilt, so probably Austin Martin. Watching him hit is probably the biggest thing. No one else hits like him with the way he checks off balls and the way he puts balls into the gaps.
MLB Pipeline: Of pitchers you've seen or pitched with, if you could take one pitch from somebody and add it to your repertoire or improve a pitch you have in your repertoire, whose pitch might you take?
Rocker: I'd probably say [former Vanderbilt teammate] Mason Hickman. I think he's very underrated and he commands the ball really well. He's got a lot of pitches. His curveball was slow but it gave me like a [Zack] Greinke-type vibe and he just snuck it in there.