Ever since the first person overlayed a high fastball with a low curveball, pitching video Twitter has exploded. With accounts like Pitching Ninja pumping out content in nearly real-time, fans are reminded every single day just how hard it is to hit a baseball, foreign substances or not. Heck, even I have gotten in on the act when I want to do deep dives on pitchers here on Beyond the Box Score.
But the clear difference between this year and other years, at least in my mind, has been the inclusion of college pitchers en masse. Leading the charge have been a pair of Vanderbilt University righties named Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker. Both feature major league tools including fastballs that can sit in the mid-90’s along with plus breaking balls.
Additionally, both are eligible for this year’s rule 4 amateur draft, which is now less than a month away.
Jack Leiter, K'ing the Side (again).— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 22, 2021
9Ks thru 4. pic.twitter.com/aX59JjIm8L
Kumar Rocker’s slide piece. Good depth, starts it belt high, and sits on a fastball plane before breaks off the back foot late. Filth. pic.twitter.com/ahWojKzl5V— hashim (@___hash___) June 20, 2021
As of writing this article, Leiter has 171 strikeouts and 42 walks in 104.0 innings of work, pitching to a 2.08 ERA. Rocker hasn’t been quite as good, but his 2.58 ERA, 162 strikeouts, and 36 walks in 111.2 innings are eye-popping as well. Their workloads have been staggering (also alarming, but that’s for another article), as the two have accounted for over half of Vanderbilt’s starts and nearly 40 percent of the innings. For some context, only one pitcher in Major League Baseball so far has eclipsed 100 innings in 2021.
But make no mistake about it, these are both big with big-time stuff who project to be above average major league starters. From what I have seen, I think that either or both can impact an MLB roster this year. This depends, of course, on the team that drafts them and where they are in their contention window.
Whichever mock draft you look at, analysts have Leiter slightly above Rocker, even if the difference is marginal. Nearly every list I have seen has them both in at least the top 10, and surely some organizations have Rocker over Leiter. MLB Pipeline has Leiter going 3rd Rocker going 6th, with FanGraphs predicting them to go 4th and 7th.
Looking at this year’s draft order, there are a few interesting teams in the top 10 who could use an impact arm, especially without having to spend prospect capital to get it.
2021 MLB Draft Order
It’s hard to imagine either of them falling to the Angels at No. 9 or the Mets at No. 10, so the Red Sox at No. 4 have an interesting decision to make. Their starting rotation has been surprisingly good, ranking as the seventh-best in baseball by fWAR, but remarkably healthy, as they have only used 6 starters all season. Contrast that with a team like the Rays who have used 11. Even with Chris Sale hoping to come back at some point this season, they could certainly use some depth.
If a pitcher like Leiter does fall to the Red Sox at No. 4 (as FanGraphs has it), it seems like a no-brainer. If Leiter gets taken by a team like the Tigers at No. 3 (like MLB Pipeline has it), it still seems obvious to go with Rocker who is every bit as good, even though most mock drafts have a few selections between them.
Of course, it’s not as simple as drafting a major league-ready player and inserting him onto the roster. There are financial negotiations, the need to make room on the 40-man roster, etc. Besides no one has pitched in the big leagues in the same year they were drafted since *checks notes* Garrett Crochet, who went 11th overall in 2020.
Sure there are some differences in circumstances between Crochet in 2020 and Leiter and Rocker this year. The NCAA season got canceled in 2020 and Crochet only pitched 3.1 innings at the collegiate level, making him a fresher arm from the jump. Also, all of his major league work has been as a short innings reliever so far, possibly because of the lack of a final college season.
But should that really matter? If a contending team has the chance to draft a player who can impact their major league roster immediately, is it really relevant whether there was a full college season or not? If we’re honest, it probably will, but it shouldn’t.
If neither pitcher gets drafted by a contending team next month, it’s hard to imagine either of them wearing a major league uniform this year. If the Red Sox, Angels, or Mets are in play, there may be a chance, which would be great for baseball. Let’s just hope they don’t have to ‘work on their defense.’
Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in FiveThirtyEight and The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.