Ex-Commodores Leiter, Rocker get the band back together
College teammates lean on each other early in their Rangers odyssey
ARLINGTON -- The last time Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker saw each other was back in 2021, in Omaha, Neb., as Vanderbilt University watched Mississippi State celebrate after it defeated the Commodores for the College World Series championship.
The two Vanderbilt co-aces have had a divergent journey since that June night in Omaha, but both ended up at Globe Life Field on Thursday for the Rangers’ Minor League leadership minicamp.
They reunited for the first time earlier this month in Nashville, Tenn., where Leiter has spent most of the offseason working out at Vanderbilt's baseball facility. They then headed together to Surprise, Ariz., to participate in a Minor League minicamp at the Rangers’ Spring Training facility.
“A lot has happened since Omaha,” said Rocker, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Rangers' No. 8 prospect. “So it’s just being with him, getting to learn from him and seeing what he's learned. I know he had a full Double-A season, and I’m taking what I can from him about how to travel properly, people to know, people to meet -- and just talking about old times, honestly. There's not a lot of times you get to play with old teammates this early in your career.”
Since Omaha, Leiter was selected No. 2 overall by the Rangers in the 2021 MLB Draft and completed his first professional season with Double-A Frisco. Meanwhile, Rocker was drafted 10th overall by the Mets that same year but didn't sign after New York’s review of his medical information raised concerns about his right shoulder and right elbow.
Rocker went on to sign with the Tri-City ValleyCats of the independent Frontier League to prepare for the 2022 Draft. The Rangers selected him at No. 3 overall.
Now, a year and a half after making up college’s baseball best one-two punch, the 23-year-old Rocker and 22-year-old Leiter figure to line up in the same rotation once again at a Rangers Minor League affiliate.
“We've fantasized about being on the same big league staff for a while now,” said Leiter, the organization's No. 2 prospect. “I was talking about how special it was pitching on the same staff in college, and obviously, professionally is just a magnified level of that. It is special being able to watch a competitor like him do his thing -- and then go out and do my thing a night or two later, however the schedule lines up. That's a cool thing.”
Leiter is looking forward to he and Rocker making each other better every day.
“The friendly competition is always something that I think any competitor welcomes between teammates,” Leiter said. “And I think that's a really fun thing that makes baseball cool.”
Rocker got his first taste of affiliated professional baseball with the Surprise Saguaros in the Arizona Fall League just months after the Draft. He went 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in six starts (14 innings).
Rocker noted that after the chaos of the 2021 Draft and everything that followed, it was good to finally relax by being on the mound and around other elite prospects day in and day out.
“Everyone plays at the same pace, especially at that level, and everyone knows the game,” Rocker said about what he learned in the Fall League. “It's a matter of adjusting to and becoming a part of and understanding the game within the game. That was the best part of it. … It was just the ups and downs of starting back up. But it was special being in the Ranger uniform.”
For Leiter, 2022 was a year full of adjustments as he went from Vanderbilt straight to Double-A. He posted a 5.54 ERA in 92 2/3 innings. His fastball command was the biggest issue, as he walked 56 batters but struck out 109.
Leiter said he felt like he was trying to do too much all season, which led to less-than-ideal results. This offseason, he has worked to tweak mechanical things and adjust his daily processes, but he mostly thinks simplifying everything will do him good.
“The year had more downs than ups, but I think I learned a ton from it,” Leiter said. “I think that's all part of the learning process. At the end of the day, that's what makes it fun. It also makes it frustrating at times. It's why baseball is so special.”