Vanderbilt right-handers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker are the undisputed current faces of college baseball. It's fitting, then, that the pair will be on full display twice in the coming weeks: beginning tonight, when the Commodores take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the first game of the 2021 Men's College World Series; and then again on July 11, when Major League Baseball kicks off its first-year amateur draft. (Neither Leiter nor Rocker is expected to go first overall, but both will come off the board early on.)
The proximity of Leiter -- who's expected to start vs. Mississippi State on Monday night in Game 1 -- to Rocker (or Rocker to Leiter, depending on one's perspective) within the Vanderbilt rotation and on draft boards makes it natural to compare them to each other. As such, CBS Sports asked a handful of big-league scouts and analysts which of the two they prefer and why. It ought to go without saying that most teams would be happy to land either in the draft.
The results of the survey saw three evaluators pick Leiter, one take Rocker, and one submit they had no preference. While the poll was asked of personnel with teams who are picking in the top 10, their explanations will not be published here as a means of protecting against intentional misdirection.
Predictably, given that the pitchers are both highly accomplished collegiates with sparkling track records, the differences in evaluation were nuanced.
"I worry about the quality of Rocker's stuff," a veteran scout said. "If you dig in, Rocker needs guys to chase everything."
Rocker, who was ranked No. 4 in CBS Sports' preseason top 50, finished his regular season career at Vanderbilt with a 2.79 ERA and a 4.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 232 innings. The pinnacle of his Commodore career came during the 2019 regionals, when he struck out 19 Duke batters in the first Vanderbilt no-hitter since 1971.
Rocker led the Commodores and set a career-high with 117 2/3 innings this season. Unfortunately, he raised concerns about his long-term durability when he suffered through a stretch of reduced velocity. Rocker's radar-gun readings have since recovered, yet the scout admitted that also influenced his thinking: "The lesser velo plays better, too, but it's a mess."
Whereas those are two of the biggest knocks against Rocker, Leiter has his own blemishes that teams have to square, including breaking ball consistency.
"Great question, but I really have no idea," one talent evaluator said. "Gun to my head, I'd take Rocker. It's a better breaking ball."
Of course, that didn't prevent Leiter (No. 1 in CBS Sports' preseason list) from dominating during his abbreviated time on campus. In 119 career innings, he posted a 2.03 ERA and a 3.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Back in March, he nearly recorded two consecutive no-hitters against SEC opponents.
Besides, while Rocker's slider (one of the best chase pitches in the class) is considered superior to any of Leiter's secondary weapons at present, that's not certain to remain the case heading forward.
"The fastball plays a tick better, and I think he has a chance to have multiple swing-and-miss breakers with some tweaks," a different veteran scout said of Leiter. "Whereas Rocker, whose present breaking ball is better than either of Leiter's, will likely only have one option at his disposal."
The scout added that they're comfortable projecting Leiter to leapfrog Rocker because of his edges in athleticism and perceived makeup. "So, better on-mound mover resulting in potential minor pitch tweaks paired with elite -- and I'm talking elite -- makeup from Leiter. Rocker's solid in that regard, but Leiter was one of the best interviews I've ever been part of."
Perhaps it's no surprise that Leiter earns high marks for his work ethic and thoughtfulness about the craft: his father, uncle, and cousin have all pitched in the majors. Leiter, who seems destined to do the same, will begin his professional journey soon enough. So will Rocker -- even if it appears he'll have to wait a little longer to hear his name called in next month's draft.