Kumar Rocker Named 2019 Baseball America Freshman Of The Year
Kumar Rocker last fall came to Vanderbilt to much fanfare. He had ranked No. 13 on the 2018 BA 500 and was the highest ranked player to make it to campus, not only last fall, but in the rankings’ history.
The Commodores have had plenty of highly touted recruits since Tim Corbin arrived in Nashville in 2003 and they have produced a slew of premium pitchers from David Price to Sonny Gray to Tyler Beede to Walker Buehler to Kyle Wright.
Rocker came to Vanderbilt expected to join that pipeline. Listed at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, with a fastball that reached the upper 90s and some early talk that had him as a potential top-five overall pick, it was easy to dream on him. He ratcheted expectations up even more with a stellar performance in a fall game against Oklahoma State, striking out eight batters in nine innings.
Ultimately, Rocker exceeded even those lofty expectations. He opened the season in the weekend rotation and stayed there nearly the whole year, a rarity among Vanderbilt’s elite pitchers. And while the start of his season was a bit rocky, it ended on the highest of highs, with him being helping Vanderbilt to the national championship and being named College World Series Most Outstanding Player.
Rocker went 12-5, 3.25 with 114 strikeouts and 21 walks in 99.2 innings this season. In the NCAA Tournament alone, he was 4-0, 0.96 with 44 strikeouts and five walks in 28 innings. When the Commodores needed him the most, he stepped up. Facing elimination against Duke in the Nashville Super Regional, Rocker delivered the best performance, not only of his season, but of any pitcher in college baseball this spring. He threw the first no-hitter ever in super regionals and struck out 19 batters, a truly dominant performance. He did it again in the College World Series finals, striking out 11 batters in 6.1 innings against Michigan, setting Vanderbilt up to win its second national championship.
As a result of his outstanding season, Rocker is the 2019 Baseball America Freshman of the Year.
The award is especially fitting because beyond having a great season, Rocker enjoys being a freshman, a year most are happy to leave behind. He said his favorite thing about the season was learning from the older Commodores.
“I like being a freshman one more time,” he said. “Being a high school freshman was fun and being a college freshman is a whole different experience. No one says that a lot, but it’s fun.”
That attitude is part of what helped Rocker succeed this spring. Joining a team like Vanderbilt, which opened the season as the No. 1 team in the country with national championship aspirations and a strong core of older players, isn’t easy. But Rocker was able to make a smooth transition to college and fit in with his new teammates.
Part of that is certainly down to his ability. Rocker has an overpowering fastball that routinely reaches the upper 90s. His slider is a devastating pitch and he used it for all 19 of his strikeouts against Duke. He’s still working on his changeup, but it’s in his arsenal when he needs it. And he pounds the strike zone, coming right after hitters.
Rocker’s early success is a result of more than just pure stuff, however. Coach Tim Corbin said what helped Rocker begin his career in the rotation was also his consistent mentality and maturity.
“I think all those factors go into someone that is young and that has the ability to jump inside an SEC environment and pitch,” Corbin said. “It’s not easy, as we know, but he’s taken on this great challenge and he’s been able to manage it well because I think he’s a sponge.”
Still, Rocker did scuffle early. He didn’t make it out of the second inning in his debut against Texas Christian at the MLB4 Tournament in Arizona. For the next few weeks he worked out of the bullpen in a piggyback role before returning to the rotation at the start of SEC play. There were still some ups and downs, but by mid-April, he had found his groove. He threw seven scoreless innings against Arkansas on April 13 and from then on, he has been excellent.
Rocker said his early season struggles helped him grow.
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“That start of the season definitely made me as a pitcher,” he said. “Through that I learned how to manage a game, how to use pitches, how to bury the breaking ball, simple things like that. Adding all that together – where I’m at today is because of that.”
The Vanderbilt coaching staff has found Rocker to be very coachable since he arrived on campus last fall. His parents Tracy, a former NFL defensive lineman who went into coaching after his playing days ended, and Lalitha, have been an important presence for Rocker.
Rocker said his father, who currently is the defensive line coach at Tennessee and has coached all over the SEC and spent three seasons on staff with the Tennessee Titans, still helps him with the mental game.
All of that has made for a player that is supremely talented but who wants to get better.
“He came in here with an open mind and is very coachable,” pitching coach Scott Brown said. “He’s fun to be around on a daily basis. He has high standards for himself. But the pleasure of him, he wants to be a really good teammate, he wants to be treated like a Normal Joe and he really, really wants to be coached.”
Getting treated like a Normal Joe may become harder going forward. Rocker began the spring as the early favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft and this season has only reinforced that status. His no-hitter, which Brown said was the greatest performance he’s ever seen, made him one of college baseball’s most famous players overnight and he says people now sometimes recognize him out in public and ask if he’s the one that threw the no-hitter.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, that was me,” he said. “People really be watching stuff like that, so that’s kind of cool.”
The success won’t overwhelm Rocker, however. He’s still focused on larger goals and Corbin is already comparing his maturity to All-American outfielder JJ Bleday, who was the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft. The fanfare Rocker came to college with will soon be dwarfed the fanfare as he moves on to pro ball.