The 6’5” pitcher who had just struck Hamilton out stalked the mound in wait of his next victim. Hamilton’s advice may have been good, but it didn’t help. Black worked the count full, treading water for seven pitches, but on the eighth he was done in by the high heater.
It was the third batter Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker sent right back to the dugout in the opening inning, and he’d add five more Ks in the 14-1 Commodores win. A few hours later, in the second half of the season-opening double header, his teammate Jack Leiter bested him — 6.0 IP, 1 H, 8 K, 0 BB.
Rocker and Leiter head the best rotation, on the best team, from the best program in college baseball. The 2021 Vanderbilt squad is filled with not just college stars, but future big league aces (yes, plural), all star outfielders, and MLB starting catchers. Simply put, the current iteration of Vandy baseball is an absolute wagon.
There is a very real chance over 25 percent of the MLB Draft’s top five picks in the next three years will be Commodores. They have FanGraphs’ No. 6 player in the 2023 class, No. 4 in the 2022, and Rocker and Leiter are projected first and second overall picks in the 2021 class.
Through 14 games, Rocker has a 0.00 ERA, .696 WHIP, and a 13.3 K/ 9. Leiter lags behind with a .45 ERA, .850 WHIP, and 14.9 K/9 in 20 IP. Rocker has allowed one run all season and they are both undefeated, but that is essentially a given for the 12-2 Commodores.
In his third start of the season, Leiter twisted on the mound and stared downward after his 26th pitch against University of Illinois-Chicago. The 20-year-old reached for the brim of his cap and walked towards the dugout, upset with himself. His catcher, Maxwell Romero Jr., met Leiter at the third base line and slapped him on the backside. Leiter was frustrated he had walked two batters in the inning (no runners scored and he struck out the side).
Leiter is the lightning to Rocker’s thunder. He is listed at 6’1″ and 195 pounds, features a four pitch mix, and has drawn comparisons to Sonny Gray. At 21-years-old, Rocker is 6’5″ and 250 pounds. He touches 98 mph with his fastball and has earned 65+ grades on his late-breaking slider. Vanderbilt’s coach Tim Corbin likened Rocker to David Price.
Jack Leiter, Up/In Fastball & Curveball, Individual Pitches + Overlay. pic.twitter.com/6zJyRjFdxY
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 1, 2021
Freshman swingman Christian Little has started only two games this season, but is currently FanGraphs’ 6th-ranked player in the 2023 draft class and Vandy’s SP3. The Commodores rely on Rocker/Leiter to anchor the country’s seventh ranked pitching staff, but on days they don’t pitch it falls on the offense.
Of program’s with at least 400 AB this year, Vanderbilt has the highest SLG%, fourth-highest OBP, and seventh AVG. They also lead the country in stolen base percentage (minimum 20 SB) with a 95% success-rate.
On March 13, Oklahoma State brought in Elliot Tucker to pitch the 8th inning against Vandy. The Commodores had scored 12 runs in the games’ first seven innings and led by 10, but with bases loaded freshman Jack O’Dowd dug in for more. OSU’s Tucker stepped into a pitch, cocking his wrist at the back of his delivery before driving toward the plate. O’Dowd was all over it, turning on the hanging off speed pitch and sending it over the right field wall.
Tucker skipped off the mound as two runs scored — 14-2 Vandy. Three pitches later and Troy LaNeve’s oppo shot put the Commodores up 15, and ended Tucker’s day before he could record an out. Vanderbilt ultimately beat the No. 13 team in the country 18-4, the only game Oklahoma State has allowed over six runs this year
The Commodore offense features future big league catcher Jack Bulger and outfielder Enrique Bradfield, but, somehow, it could’ve been even better. Robert Hassell III and Pete Crow-Armstrong, outfielders taken eighth and 19th in the 2020 MLB draft, were committed to play for Vanderbilt this year.
High signing bonuses lured the top prospects away from the newly expanded (for $13 million) Vanderbilt athletic facility. It is a Major League-caliber complex with 30,000 square feet of cardio studios, workout rooms, fueling stations, and walls of jerseys from former Commodores who have played in the big leagues.
Walker Buehler and Sonny Gray are front-and-center, but there is room for more. Maybe Austin Martin, one of the two Vandy grads currently in MLB.com’s top 25 prospects, will be next. In a few years it could be Leiter or Rocker. Or maybe it will be one of the seven top 100 recruits already committed to join the program in 2022.
It’s not a question of if but who, because the Vanderbilt baseball factory shows no signs of stopping.
Photo by Chris Gillespie | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)