Tim Corbin is starting to get that feeling. The NFL just kicked off. College football is underway. And, most notably for the Wolfeboro, N.H. native, Tuesday marks the first official day of workouts for the Vanderbilt University baseball team.
“I know it’s not normal yet, what is normal? But at least it feels like it did,” the Vanderbilt baseball coach told WEEI.com by phone. “Everything coming up, that’s a good sign. That’s a really good sign.’
It is a time Pirates fans should note of, as well.
This is the day Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter kick off what figures to be their paths toward the top of the 2021 Major League Baseball Draft, a place where the Pirates might just be waiting.
While it is unclear exactly how commissioner Rob Manfred is going to order the next Draft, the Bucs are certainly putting themselves in position to have a chance at the top overall pick for the first time in their history. Pittsburgh currently possesses the worst winning percentage in baseball.
And if they do manage to find themselves at the top of the Draft, the consensus is that the two Vanderbilt pitchers will be considered the chosen ones. The scenario is far from a mystery. It’s why hashtags such a #TankforKumar have been circulating throughout Pirates’ fans’ Twitter accounts, with mentions of the son of former major leaguer Al Leiter not far behind.
The fans know. The executives know. Their coach knows. And don’t think for a second the players don’t know.
But, as Corbin explained it, it’s the way the two pitchers are handling all the notoriety that helps make them a cut above.
“Both of them are very directed kids,” he said. “Both of them understand that it’s attention that is on the perimeter of where they live and where they live their counterpoint is on a campus and on a ball field and in the classroom. They do a very good job of containing their mindsets directed only on that. I think the outside they understand that. It comes with it. I think the strength of kids like them is they have gone through those processes before. They have had a lot of conversations in high school about this. I think the second time around it’s, ‘OK, I’ve been through it. I know it’s going to happen around me. But the commanding piece of me is being able to do what I do and forget about everything else.’ That’s what they do.
“All the kids that have been very successful here and now are playing at the highest level, they all left academically in really, really good shape. There was no one ever moving in a different direction. With those kids they continued to move up academically. Jack Leiter is a Dean’s List student. Kumar is over a 3.0 student. You’re talking about two kids who really, really compete academically because they understand those competitive fibers do transition to the ball field and do transition to other areas of their life. I would say they command the 24 hour day. They do not let a 24 hour day slip away from them. They are both on task. They both have social lives, but they know how to command that. They know everything they’re doing has significance and importance to them. They are the best reflection of both sets of their parents. That’s the similarity. They are the best reflections of their parents. They really are. They are their parents every single day by how they treat otters, have they navigate their lives and by their outputs. That’s the best compliment they give their parents.”
Even before getting to know the character of each young man, both resumes jump off the page.
- Rocker is heading into his junior season, having been taken by the Rockies in the 2018 Draft in the 38th round due to signability concerns. The Georgia native — and son of former NFL defensive lineman Tracy Rocker — would be named Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year, leading Vanderbilt to a College World Series championship. Along the way Rocker became the first player to throw a no-hitter in the tournament’ Super Regional, striking out 19.
- Leiter who will be a draft-eligible sophomore, also slipped in the Draft due to an understanding that he most likely would be headed to Vanderbilt, ultimately being taken in the 20th round by the Yankees. The New Jersey native’s high school career saw him finish with a 0.54 ERA, leading to an abbreviated freshman season in which his first collegiate game started with five no-hit innings. Before the COVID-19 shutdown Leiter pitched 15 2/3 innings, totaling a 1.72 ERA.
The results might seem the same, but the two are different pitchers, to be sure, as Corbin explained.
“I just think they are better in what they do,” he said. “They both had physical skillsets when they got here. It came out with the ball in terms of their ability to throw the ball. But I think for both of them it’s really how they harness the ball. It’s how they manipulate the ball. It’s how they manipulate their body. Both of them have done different things with their body. They are both shaped differently. Kumar is one who has tapered his body in some regard and is moving really well. Jack is a very strong-bodied kid to begin with. He operates going down the hill. It’s smoother. It’s more consistent.
“I think the fastball is a little bit different just because of the angle of how they throw it. Whatever the velocity is … The velocity numbers on their fastball are relatively high. They are what they are. But at the same time they are both different because Kumar’s release angle is higher because of his size and because of how he throws. Jack’s release angle isn’t much lower because he is a kid who is smaller but comes at a little bit higher ankle than than what Kumar does. For both of them the ball has energy as it gets to the plate. And the backend of both of their fastballs have very good energy and very good movement as it gets to the plate. That has continued to grow. The breaking balls are different. They have different personalities to their breaking balls. Kumar’s is more slider-ish and Jack is more curveball-ish. But both of them throws a hard breaking ball. And both of them can slow the ball down and have a good feel for decelerating the baseball. What they have become is more pitcher-ish. It’s their ability to pitch and manipulate the ball with the understanding that velocity does matter but it only matters if it is commanded and can be backed up and set up with other pitches. They have both been able to learn that.”
But, for their coach, the biggest difference-maker for each is who both Rocker and Letier are off the mound.
They are the whole ball of wax, packages of excellence teams like the Pirates are undoubtedly hoping to get to know a whole lot better in about nine months.
“It’s the mental part of who they are and what they do,” Corbin explained. “They don’t leave much to chance, whether it’s socially or academically or athletically. They are pretty much those kids when they get inside the building they are pretty directed in what they are going to do. Even though there is a year between them in terms of when Kumar entered Vanderbilt and Jack entered Vanderbilt, they both entered under similar circumstances out of opportunities that had arise out of high school. But I think their maturity has a lot to do with why they are here. How they were raised both of them has a lot to do with why they are here.”