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Once they were ‘Vandy Boys’ — now Kumar Rocker joins Jack Leiter in Texas

ARLINGTON, Texas — A year ago, Jack Leiter got a phone call from the Texas Rangers informing him he had been selected with their No. 2 pick of the 2021 MLB Draft. A year later, he didn’t expect his phone would start “blowing up” again. He was on an airplane from Texas to New Jersey to spend time with family as the baseball world took its half-season breather for the draft and All-Star Game. But when the Rangers shocked the industry by selecting his former Vanderbilt rotation-mate Kumar Rocker with the third pick, the texts started flooding in.

“Right as our plane landed, the pick happened,” Leiter said. “So I didn’t get to see it live but saw it, and obviously, the phone kind of blew up.”

With the pick, the Rangers reunited a duo that some thought might go as high as the first two picks of the 2021 draft. It seemed inconceivable, barring some future blockbuster trade, that the two would end up in the same organization. But after Rocker struck out 142 hitters and walked just 29 in 114 2/3 innings over his first two years in Nashville, his third season in 2021 might have created some “scout fatigue.” His numbers weren’t bad — he went 14-4 with 179 strikeouts and 39 walks in 122 innings — but there were legitimate questions.

“There’s a lot of concern right now about Kumar Rocker,” The Athletic’s Keith Law wrote at the time. “Presumed to be a no-doubt top-three pick in the 2021 draft, (he) has been pitching more at 89 to 90 mph the past two outings than his customary 94-96, according to multiple scouts I spoke with this week.”

Rocker ultimately fell to the Mets with the No. 10 pick in 2021, but concerns about the health of his shoulder led the Mets to decline to offer him a contract, making him eligible to be drafted again this year. When the opportunity presented itself to reunite Rocker and Leiter, the Rangers pounced.

It was not the first time Rocker had been drafted and did not sign, allowing a future team to take advantage of the situation. Though the circumstances were not the same, in 2018, as a senior at North Oconee High in Bogart, Ga., Rocker had committed to Vanderbilt, but his talent was big enough that some team — as the Rangers did with Brock Porter in the fourth round this year — might tempt him with an above-slot bonus to join the professional ranks.

“The thing that stood out more than anything is Lu, his mother, told us, ‘My kid’s going to school,’” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “You hear those words out of a parent’s mouth and you don’t always trust them because they don’t know what’s coming in front of them. But she always said that, right up until the time that he did come to school.”

“Oh, I always wanted him to go to school, but at the end of the day, it was his decision,” Lu said at Rocker’s introductory media availability Thursday. “But my parents came from India to give us a better life, and education was always first and foremost. … I (also) think his dad’s influence was huge, being a student-athlete himself at the top level, accomplishing everything that Tracy accomplished. (Kumar) would joke and say, ‘I’m gonna get more trophies and awards than you did, Dad.’”

Rocker confirmed his mother’s comments Thursday.

“He contributed a lot,” Kumar said of his dad, Tracy, who played football at Auburn before two seasons in the NFL. “Since I was about 9, I’ve been in every SEC locker room, just learning all I can, meeting Chris Johnson with the Titans, little things like that, seeing how those guys operate. It’s changed a lot in (making me) the person I am today.”

But as the 2018 draft neared, Corbin felt some uncertainty about whether his star recruit intended to forego professional baseball to attend college. So one night after Vanderbilt played the University of Tennessee — where Rocker’s father was coaching football — Corbin and his wife, Maggie, stayed behind to have dinner with Kumar and his parents.

“We sat there for about an hour and a half,” Corbin recalled. “And I remember him eating his chicken fingers off to my right, and he wasn’t saying anything. He wasn’t really engaging in the conversation. His mom and dad were asking questions, but Kumar was saying nothing. So it almost felt like he was disinterested, didn’t want to talk. At the end of the meal, he stands up and he said, ‘Coach, I just want to tell you this before we all leave: I’m going to be one of the best teammates you’ve ever coached.’ And I think when he said that, it was almost like a dignifying moment where he was telling us A) he was coming to school, but B) when he was coming to school, he wanted to be more than just a pitcher. He wanted to be a teammate.”

The Colorado Rockies eventually drafted him in the 38th round that year, the lateness of the pick a testament to the belief that Kumar would live up to his mom’s promise. Rocker did not sign, and the Vanderbilt Commodores won the College World Series in 2019.

The next year, Leiter joined the ranks, and the pair became one of the nation’s most dominant one-two combinations on the mound, learning not only from Corbin and the Vanderbilt staff but also from each other.

“I’m looking to learn from that dude again, man,” Rocker said on the night he was drafted. “He just had a professional mindset; he did professional things in and out of the facility. I learned a lot from him, and I used it a lot moving forward in this indie ball route, routine-wise. So just being around him and seeing how he works and moves — man, it’s really special.”

“The first thing that comes to mind with Kumar as a pitcher is (he’s) a competitor,” Leiter said. “It’s pretty obvious when you watch him pitch, and it’s a lot of fun to watch him pitch. And I think having that privilege to watch him on Fridays at Vandy (when) I was pitching the next day, it really just got me fired up for my start the next day. I really think we made each other a lot better, pitching together. We made each other better competitors and better pitchers. … The idea of the possibility of pitching on the same staff really soon is super exciting.”

Another similarity between the two: After being drafted, both pitchers went to Arizona for the onboarding process. One difference: Leiter went back to Vanderbilt in the fall. Rocker’s workouts will be with an eye toward pitching in the instructional league this fall.

“It’s standard practice that we’re using right now, in terms of normal buildup,” general manager Chris Young said. “Kumar pitched through the beginning of July, (but) he’s had several weeks off. We want to make sure that we do our due diligence with all our players — not specific to Kumar, but with everybody — in terms of making sure, physically, they’re ready for the demands of the schedule. … The goal is that we’re putting ourselves in the best position for a very strong 2023 season for Kumar and everybody in our 2022 draft class.”

Don’t let that placement fool you. Rocker is almost certainly closer to the big leagues than any of the other first-round picks in this year’s draft after going to college and pitching in independent ball this season. But with the draft being moved back to the All-Star break and the contraction of the short-season minor-league teams, all drafted pitchers have been away from competition for over a month. Going to Arizona is a way to build them back up, but by the time they are, the minor-league season will almost be over.

Further, the fact that Rocker isn’t going straight to Frisco is as much — probably more, in fact — about avoiding special treatment as it is an assessment of his talent or maturity level. He and Leiter also have the added benefit of having grown up around professional athletes and in clubhouses and locker rooms — Rocker with his dad, Tracy, and Leiter with his dad, Al, who pitched in the big leagues from 1987 to 2005.

“They’re very savvy; they’re both very streetwise,” Corbin said, comparing the two pitchers. “They both grew up in professional sports, so they’ve been in front of audiences ever since they were little guys. They’re not intimidated by (their) surroundings; they don’t see ancillary pieces as being intimidating to them at all. So they know how to control their adrenaline. … They’re just very mature kids. They belong — maybe not right now because I know that there’s levels that they have to get to — but at some point in time, they both belong, mentally and emotionally, at that level.”

“Where do you feel most of your memories?” Lu asked, rhetorically, about that decision in 2018 to attend Vanderbilt. “During college, right? And he’s an only child, and we always heard, ‘You’re going to make your best friends during school.’ Any kind of support system that he was going to establish was going to happen at this level, where you’re kind of growing with them, right?”

For Rocker, one of those members of his support system was Leiter, and that relationship has continued since both left school. Since last year’s draft, the two have been in communication, with Rocker often picking Leiter’s brain about what life is like in pro ball.

“The first thing is, it’s just a step up,” Leiter says he told his friend. “It’s the next level, and there’s adjustments that need to be made. And there’s learning that happens, and I’m going through it right now. I think if all goes well, he’ll be going through it really, really soon. And that’s the fun part is just continuing to work, finding balances of how much data to take and how much just competing to do. I think he’s gonna handle it really well.”

They’ll be together again soon. And when they are, what will they add to their team? Nobody knows more than the guy who has already managed them both.

“They’re going to add to a locker room, they’re not going to take away,” Corbin said. “Whether it’s energy, whether it’s leadership, whether it’s humility traits, any trait that organization deems necessary and important, those two kids are going to live it. I can assure you of that. (The Rangers) are very fortunate to get those two kids.”

(Photo of Kumar Rocker in 2019: Peter Aiken / Getty Images)

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