ESPN college baseball expert: Pirates should draft Jack Leiter with No. 1 overall pick

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Top ESPN college baseball analyst Ben McDonald says making him choose between Vanderbilt standouts Kumar Rocker and Jack Leither is like asking him whether he prefers crawfish etoufee or boiled crawfish: you can’t go wrong either way.

But if McDonald had to make a selection, he would go with Leither. The nine-year MLB veteran explained his reasoning Wednesday in an interview with The PM Team.

“There’s just something about Jack Leiter’s stuff to me,” McDonald said. “When I look at his stuff — and I mentioned his high spin rates and velocity on both the breaking ball and the fastball — it doesn’t hurt that your dad pitched 20 years in the big leagues and your uncle pitched 12 years and your cousin pitched two years in the big leagues. This guy comes with an understanding. In other words, he gets it. He’s been there before, the expectations are there. He just goes about his business like a professional.”

Pirates fans will get to see both pitchers up close this weekend, with Vanderbilt aiming for a repeat in the Men’s College World Series. The Commodores were the 2019 champions (last year’s tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19).

Rocker, who stands at 6-foot-5 and weighs 245 pounds, is the more physically imposing presence. He dominated instantly, leading Vandy all the way to the College World Series championship as a true freshman. In 2019, Rocker won 12 games and fanned 114 batters in 99.2 innings.

While Leiter is smaller — the right-hander stands at 6-foot-1 and weighs 205 pounds — he throws an exceptional mid-90s fastball and nasty breaking balls. He went 10-3 with a 2.16 ERA this season.

“The stuff of Jack Leiter just jumps off the charts at you,” McDonald said. "We talk a lot about the analytics today, and he can really spin both the fastball — the four-seam fastball is better than the big league average — the breaking ball is better than the big league spin rate average, too.”

With one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball, the Pirates are desperate for more arms. Though this is one of the deepest drafts in memory — there are an array of talented young high school positional players — Rocker and Leiter aren’t expected to stay in the minor leagues for long.

In other words, they should be ready to help right away. The Pirates need them.

“If you’re looking for two guys that aren’t going to spend much time in the minor leagues — I’m not saying either one of these guys are real No. 1s, I don’t know if they’re like (Max) Scherzer or those kinds of guys — but they’re definitely rotation pieces,” McDonald said.