Sports

The secrets behind Vandy’s 1-2 pitching punch

While Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker might be college baseball’s odd couple, the star pitchers have been winners at Vanderbilt from the get-go. In Leiter’s SEC debut earlier this year, he threw a no-hitter. During Rocker’s freshman season in 2019, he earned College World Series Most Outstanding Player honors while leading the Commodores to the national title. Oh yeah, he also threw a no-hitter along the way.

“Rock and Leiter don’t look alike. They don’t pitch alike. They come from two different parts of the country,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin says. “But they have so much more in common past all of that. They both share a willingness to work, to be smart and to pursue perfection as part of the team.”

Now, Leiter and Rocker look to punctuate the likely end to their collegiate careers with a College World Series title, starting Friday at the Nashville Super Regional against East Carolina (Noon ET, ESPN2 and ESPN App). A series win would have them back in Omaha to defend the Commodores’ 2019 crown before heading to the pros next month when they could become the first pitcher teammates to go in the top five of the MLB draft since UCLA’s Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer in 2011.

ESPN spoke to the aces themselves, their coaches and teammates to find out what makes them such a rare pair.

Despite being only 6-foot-1, Leiter has thrived in large part due to a power fastball described as a “plus-plus pitch,” by ESPN draft expert Kiley McDaniel.

Just ask South Carolina. In Leiter’s no-hitter against the Gamecocks, all 16 of his strikeouts came on the fastball, according to Vanderbilt catcher CJ Rodriguez.

What’s the secret to the pitch’s success?

“People always ask about the rising action my fastball has, and I think that has a lot to do with my lower release point,” Leiter says. “The pulldown from that lower point gives it that rising affect.”

Thanks in large part to that fastball, Leiter enters the Super Regionals as the No. 3 prospect in McDaniel’s draft rankings.

When Rocker’s fastball is on, it explodes out of his frame and becomes nearly impossible for most college hitters to square up.

This spring, his velocity has been inconsistent, averaging 95.4 mph in some early March outings and 91.4 in a late March start, per McDaniel.

“It’s obviously a power fastball that he can use in any count, especially with two strikes,” Rodriguez says.

Despite some late-season struggles, Rocker has shown the ability to shut down top-notch SEC competition, as he did in wins against No. 3 Tennessee (seven shutout innings) and No. 7 Mississippi State (complete game, one run) back in April.

Leiter credits his father in helping him develop his curveball.

“From a young age, Dad taught me to get on top and see how many times I could make it spin before it got to the plate,” Leiter says. “It sounds oversimplified maybe, but it’s true. You just want to spin it. Just spin it hard. Don’t be thinking, ‘OK, I have to try and make this break.'”

For Rocker, it’s the slider. “Like a football, get on top of it, and pull it down as hard as I can, create that spin. … Some call it a slider, some call it a power curve.” Call it what you want, just know it’s likely going to end in a strikeout.

After late-season struggles against Mississippi State and Florida, Leiter went two weeks before his next start and looked more like himself. He allowed one run in six innings in a 13-2 win against Ole Miss, then threw another six innings of two-run ball in a regular-season-ending win versus Kentucky.

And after the win against Georgia Tech in his NCAA tourney debut, Leiter is looking to keep it going.

If Leiter looks like he has it all figured out on the mound, his fellow ace thinks there’s a good reason for that.

“On the mound, he’s very mature in a way, because, I mean, he knows everything,” Rocker says.

With a father and uncle who both pitched in the majors, Leiter was always going to have an edge. But early on, his father didn’t want him to pitch — he wanted him to play third base.

Once Jack showed an interest and aptitude for pitching, his father helped him with how to throw certain pitches and handle the mental aspect of the game.

“There’s just a piece of him that, there’s structure in his life,” Vandy head coach Tim Corbin says. “… He knows what he’s supposed to do. He’s where he’s supposed to be. And when he gets in this environment, it’s on.”

And now it’s on for Leiter and the Commodores as they look to advance to another College World Series and defend their national championship.

Rocker might have gotten knocked around by No. 1 Arkansas in the SEC tournament (he allowed four hits, four walks and five earned runs in 3 1/3 innings), but this is the time of year he dominates.

His no-hit effort against Duke in 2019 will go down as one of the best college games ever pitched.

“In the 17 years I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that,” Corbin told The Tennessean afterward.

It was one of several dominant performances down the stretch that helped the Commodores hoist the trophy.

That fire hasn’t gone away as his collegiate career winds down.

“The competitiveness is obvious,” Leiter says.

The next step for Leiter and Rocker is July 11’s MLB draft, where they are both expected to be 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. Editing 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 visuals from SEC Network, Getty Images, AP, Icon Sportswire, Sports Illustrated

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