This time last year Kumar Rocker was seemingly on top of the world.
The former Vanderbilt ace was the 10th overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft and had a reported $6 million contract from the New York Mets on the table.
Three weeks later, Rocker’s contract was pulled, the Mets had moved on after injury concerns about the right elbow of the then-21-year-old, and back into the draft pool he went.
One year and one minor elbow surgery later, Rocker is in arguably a better situation and stands to earn more money after he was drafted No. 3 overall by the Texas Rangers on Sunday night, reuniting the 6-foot-5 righty with former teammate and last year’s No. 2 overall pick Jack Leiter.
“That’s [my] boy right there,” Rocker told MLB Network after being selected. “I’m excited to see Jack soon. … I think we came as a packaged deal years later.”
“Let’s go!” Leiter tweeted. “This guy is gonna be great! Now let’s get to work @KumarRocker.”
The Rangers’ prospect pool now features two of the most dominant arms from the 2021 NCAA season. Rocker led the country with 14 wins that year while Leiter had 11. And the duo tied for the NCAA lead with 179 strikeouts each.
Rocker’s velocity dipped a bit toward the end of that 2021 season, and there were several reports of scouts being worried that Vanderbilt had run Rocker — and his pitching arm — into the ground.
With Rocker electing not to return to Vanderbilt, agent Scott Boras announced the pitcher would instead go the Independent League route and take the year to improve his draft stock. Rocker had a minor scope of his right elbow in September and returned to the mound in early June with the Tri-City Valley Cats of the Frontier League.
“It was Aug. 1 at 5:01 [p.m.] is when it changed,” Rocker said of when he decided to go all-in on the 2022 draft. “I got to work after that. From then, we’re here today. It was a beautiful process and I’m excited that I went through it.”
Rocker, MLB Pipeline’s No. 38-ranked draft prospect, silenced any doubters during his Independent League stint, striking out 32 batters with only four walks over 20 innings with a 1.35 ERA.
More importantly, his velocity was back. Rocker’s fastball regularly hit 97-99 mph, and his secondary offerings — a slider, cutter, and changeup — appeared to display the same kind of bite they offered during his prime outings at Hawkins Field.
“I walked by faith and not by fear,” Rocker said. “Hard work pays off at the end of the day. … I was just hoping to get the opportunity to play.”
Rocker ended his Vanderbilt career with a 28-10 record, a 2.89 ERA, 321 strikeouts, and a 19-strikeout no-hitter. He was an All-SEC first team selection in 2021, an SEC All-Freshman selection, Freshman of the Year selection by Baseball America, and the College World Series Most Outstanding Player in 2019.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_