Kumar Rocker’s successful return to the mound could improve his MLB Draft stock

Kumar Rocker was a first-round talent coming out of high school in 2018, but made himself unsignable and went to Vanderbilt, where he seized the attention of the wider baseball audience with a no-hitter in an elimination game in the Super Regionals. When he was draft-eligible again last year as a junior, the Mets took him with the 10th pick, but his post-draft physical revealed something that led the club to decline to offer him a contract at all. They receive the 11th pick in this year’s MLB Draft as compensation, while Rocker returns to the draft pool.

He began his 2022 season on Saturday night in Troy, NY, throwing four innings in a start for the Tri-City ValleyCats of the independent Frontier League. And if you didn’t know something was amiss, you’d think Rocker was going to be a top-10 pick yet again.

Rocker’s velocity was as good as ever on Saturday, as he hit 98 mph multiple times and was 95-98 mph over his four innings, racing through the Trois Rivières order the first time before running into a little trouble in the fourth inning. Rocker showed four pitches, just as he did when I saw him last year, with two breaking balls that kind of run into each other and a changeup that’s clearly the fourth pitch in his repertoire. He showed better feel for his breaking stuff after the first inning, when he threw a few curveballs without a lot of conviction, but both pitches were above-average when he got rolling, with the slider up to 89 mph and the curveball showing tighter rotation .

This was not the level of competition that Rocker faced on Friday nights in the SEC, so while he threw 43 of 60 pitches for strikes (72 percent), it was more control than command. He seemed to shoot a little bit in the fourth inning, with a hit batter, a wild pitch and a home run allowed on a hanging breaking ball. The one noticeable difference from last year was that his arm slot was slightly lower. I don’t know if that’s by design, but it’s something to monitor going forward.

That no-hitter from 2019 deserves further mention, though. Rocker punched out 19 batters in that outing and required 131 pitches to do so. In the last five full MLB seasons, only three pitchers have thrown at least 130 pitches in a game; none was younger than 25 when he did it. Rocker was 19 years old at the time of the no-hitter and visibly tired – or maybe exhausted – by the time the game was over. He shouldn’t have been out there, even if it seemed like “history” at the time. We know that pitching while fatigued increases the risk of injury. We saw him overused, to an extent that no Major League Baseball team would consider for any pitcher of his age. If Rocker turns out to have some kind of arm injury – which, to be clear, we do not know for certain, only that the Mets saw something they didn’t like – we should at least consider whether that 131-pitch outing had anything to do with it.

As for Rocker’s draft status this year, if he pitches like this two or three more times, holding his stuff for longer outings and showing a bit more command, he’ll probably get back into the first round. If any team drafting up top decides his medicals are clean/not a concern, he’s a top-10 talent in the class. The probability of one team deciding that seems pretty high, but if I were to place money on this, I’d bet it happens in the back half of the round, where the opportunity cost is lower – think the Nationals with Lucas Giolito, or the Guardians with Brady Aiken. I did see Padres’ GM AJ Preller there, along with at least four other scouting directors or senior executives from other teams drafting after the Padres select at pick No. 15.

This was certainly enough of a showing to move him back up everyone’s pref lists, at least for now, and he can continue to build on it and try to dispel any fears about his health by showing that huge velocity again and again.

(Photo of Kumar Rocker in 2021: Steven Branscombe/USA Today Sports)

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