Rangers' Rocker tosses longest outing yet in AFL

October 24th, 2022

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Kumar Rocker and Henry Davis have a history.

Rocker’s Vanderbilt downed Davis’ Louisville, 3-2, in the 2019 College World Series semis when the pair were freshmen. Rocker didn’t pitch in the game but was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after the Commodores took their second-ever national title. Two years later, Davis went No. 1 overall in the Draft to the Pirates, and three years later, Rocker went No. 3 overall to the Rangers.

On Monday, the two paired up as batterymates for the first time in the Arizona Fall League.

“I got a text from him the night before,” Rocker said. “He was ready to go. I was ready to go this morning. It's just like bringing a different level of intensity to the game.”

The result was Rocker’s longest AFL start so far.

Texas’ No. 8 prospect struck out three and allowed one earned run on three hits and two walks over 2 2/3 innings in Surprise’s 2-1 loss to Peoria at Peoria Sports Complex. The outing marked Rocker’s fourth AFL appearance, and none of the previous three had lasted longer than two frames or 43 pitches. He threw 53 pitches (31 for strikes) on Monday before being lifted.

Rocker did need Davis’ assistance a bit early on. The 6-foot-5 right-hander opened the game with five straight balls, prompting the Pittsburgh backstop to come out quickly for a mound visit.

“He just gave me some time,” Rocker said. “I was like, alright, we need to take a minute.”

The Saguaros starter responded by throwing three straight strikes, getting Nerwilian Cedeno to fly out to right in the process. He did allow his only run of the game in the first after Jackson Merrill singled to move leadoff man Kevin Kendall to third and then Robert Perez Jr. drove him in with a fielder’s choice bouncer to second.

Rocker’s best frame came in the second when he relied more heavily on his mid-80s, wipeout slider. He got the left-handed-hitting Yasel Antuna to wave at an 85 mph slider at his backfoot for his first K of the afternoon and then used the pitch exclusively to get Cedeno to whiff three times in a row to close out the inning.

“[I] started landing it and getting some easy swings and misses,” Rocker said. “And then I can start working the fastball in there, so that’s all good.”

The Vandy alum has previously talked about making fastball command a point of emphasis in the Fall League -- a sensible strategy given all of his time off.

Famously, Rocker was first drafted 10th overall by the Mets last year but didn’t end up signing after a post-Draft evaluation revealed potential shoulder and elbow concerns. He underwent shoulder surgery last September and went on to pitch five times for Tri-City in the independent Frontier League, hoping to prove to scouts and evaluators that his stuff and health were holding up. Texas was convinced enough to select him third and sign him for $5.2 million before sending him to the Fall League.

He sat 94-96 mph with the fastball in Monday’s outing and ended the start with a 94 mph fastball that froze Perez for his third and final K of the day.

“Outing to outing, I’m taking that side as seriously as I can with two out of three [fastballs] every time,” Rocker said. “I’m just trying to throw strikes and bring that onto the field.”

The Saguaros hurler noted he’s still building up with a little less than three weeks remaining on the AFL calendar, though he could have gone a little extra Monday if needed.

“I could have gone to the fourth, actually,” he said.

That’s a promising sign for the Rangers organization that hopes to build a future rotation around Rocker and Top 100 prospects Jack Leiter (Rocker’s Vandy teammate), Owen White and Brock Porter. But before Rocker can think of picking up a ball in Arlington, there’s a matter of pitching in the Phoenix area with temporary teammates, like a former rival in Davis.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “The biggest thing is hanging out in the dugout, meeting new players and getting to play great competition. That's been a big part. I’m just enjoying it.”