While Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker might be the odd couple in college baseball, the Star pitchers have been winners at Vanderbilt from the start. He threw a no-hitter on Leiter’s SEC debut earlier this year. During Rocker’s 2019 freshman season, he was named College World Series Most Outstanding Player while leading the Commodores to the national title. Oh yeah, he threw a no-hitter on the way too.
“Rock and ladder don’t look the same. They don’t play the same. They come from two different parts of the country,” says Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin. “But after all that they have so much more in common. Both share a willingness to work, to be smart and to strive for perfection as part of the team.”
Now leaders and rockers want to underscore the likely end of their college careers with a college World Series title, starting Friday in the Nashville Super Regional against East Carolina (Noon ET, ESPN2 and ESPN app). A streak win would bring them back to Omaha to defend the 2019 Commodores crown before heading to the pros next month when they could become the first pitching teammates to have been in since UCLA’s Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer in 2011 enter the top 5 of the MLB draft.
ESPN spoke to the Aces themselves, their coaches, and teammates to find out what makes them such a rare couple.
Despite being only six feet tall, Leiter evolved in large part thanks to a power fastball described by ESPN design expert Kiley McDaniel as a “plus-plus pitch”.
Just ask South Carolina. In Leiters no-hitter against the Gamecocks, all 16 of his strikeouts came to the fastball, according to Vanderbilt catcher CJ Rodriguez.
What is the secret of the pitch’s success?
“People always ask about the rising action of my fastball, and I think that has a lot to do with my lower trip point,” says Leiter. “The pulldown from this lower point gives it that increasing effect.”
Thanks in large part to this quick ball, Leiter enters the Super Regionals as No. 3 on McDaniel’s draft rankings.
When Rockers Fastball is on, it explodes out of its frame, becoming almost impossible for most college hitters to find their way around.
That spring, his speed was inconsistent, averaging 95.4 mph on some outings in early March and 91.4 mph in late March, per McDaniel.
“It’s obviously a power fastball that he can use on any count, especially two hits,” says Rodriguez.
Despite some struggles late in the season, Rocker has demonstrated the ability to end world-class SEC competition, as he did in victories against No. 3 Tennessee (seven shutout innings) and No. 7 Mississippi State (full game, one run) has in April.
Leiter credits his father for helping him develop his curveball.
“Dad taught me from an early age to get to the top and see how many times I can turn it before it comes on the plate,” says Leiter. “It may sound oversimplified, but it’s true. You just want to turn it. Just turn it hard. Don’t think, ‘Okay, I have to try to make that break.'”
For rockers, it’s the slider. “Like a soccer ball, get on it and pull it as tight as I can, create that spin. … Some call it a slider, others call it a performance curve.” Call it what you will, just knowing that it will likely end in a strikeout.
After battling Mississippi State and Florida in the late season, Leiter left two weeks before his next start and looked more like himself. He allowed a run in six innings in a 13–2 win over Ole Miss, then he threw another six innings with a two-run ball in a win over Kentucky at the end of the regular season.
And after beating Georgia Tech on his NCAA tournament debut, Leiter wants to move on.
If Leiter looks like he figured it all out on the hill, his comrade thinks there is a good reason for it.
“He’s very grown up on the hill, in a way, because I mean he knows everything,” says Rocker.
With a father and uncle both playing in the majors, Leiter would always have an advantage. But early on, his father didn’t want him to line up – he wanted him to play third base.
Once Jack showed an interest and aptitude for pitching, his father would help him throw certain pitches and deal with the mental aspect of the game.
“There is only one piece of him, there is structure in his life,” says Vandy head coach Tim Corbin. “… He knows what to do. It’s where it’s supposed to be.
And now it’s up to Leiter and the Commodores to advance to another College World Series and defend their national championship.
Rocker may have been blown away by the # 1 Arkansas SEC tournament (allowing four hits, four walks, and five earned runs in 3 1/3 innings), but this is the time of the year he dominates.
His no-hit performance against Duke in 2019 will be considered one of the best college games of all time.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in the 17 years I’ve been here,” Corbin later told The Tennessean.
It was one of several dominant appearances on the track that helped the Commodores lift the trophy.
That fire didn’t go away when his college career came to an end.
“The competitiveness is obvious,” says Leiter.
The next step for leaders and rockers is the July 11th MLB draft, where both are expected to be the top 10 picks. Here are the current major league stars they most resemble, according to ESPN MLB insider and draft expert Kiley McDaniel.
Reporting by Ryan McGee. Adaptation by Ryan Canner-O’Mealy.
Visuals by Brett Carlsen.
Produced by ESPN Creative Studio: Rob Booth, Jarret Gabel, Alecia Hamm, Lori Higginbotham, Luke Knox, Miller Safrit.
Additional images from SEC Network, Getty Images, AP, Icon Sportswire, Sports Illustrated