What are you doing here?
The Vanderbilt freshman who pitched one of the most dominant games in NCAA tournament history has heard various versions of the question before.
Kumar Rocker is a right-hander with a linebacker’s build — 6-foot-4, 255. He already carries himself like a poised veteran. He’s got an electric fastball and a slider that pro scouts have been drooling over.
And yet he’s in Omaha.
Enrolled in college. Playing for Vanderbilt. Preparing to make his College World Series debut against Mississippi State on Wednesday — what will be his first outing since he delivered a 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke in the super regional.
Rocker’s pro career could have started a year ago — with a seven-figure signing bonus included.
But it didn’t. His choice.
Rocker absorbed the reporter’s question last week as he stood inside the Vanderbilt locker room. His eyes soon darted around the clubhouse, from nook to nook — as if he were checking off an imaginary box next to each one of his teammates who has pro potential.
Thirteen of those Commodores — essentially one-third of the roster — heard their names called in the MLB draft this month.
Left-hander Hugh Fisher and second baseman Austin Martin — two potential early-round picks in 2020 — headline a sophomore class that D1Baseball and Perfect Game ranked as the nation’s best coming out of high school.
Here is what Rocker was thinking: What environment would be better suited for a 19-year-old baseball player’s maturation process than this?
“When you hang around players who are ready to go to the league — but who (choose to) spend three or four years here — you’re just going to compete harder each day,” Rocker said. “There’s not a lot of time wasted. We’re here to get the work done together.”
It’s a concept that’s not unique to Vanderbilt.
The best route to the majors goes through college — at least that’s what the current trend suggests.
According to a recent report from the Wall Street Journal, high school players accounted for 24% of 2019 MLB draft picks. It’s the seventh straight year that figure declined.
Baseball America reported that 51 of the 78 selections on the first day of the draft were college players. That’s the second-highest rate all time (only 1981 had more), according to Baseball America.
Players like Rocker aren’t surprised to hear that.
Mississippi State freshman JT Ginn, Louisville sophomore Reid Detmers and Vanderbilt junior JJ Bleday had similar perspectives.
You don’t get to the majors overnight, they said. It takes time.
So why not join a tradition-rich college program and chase a common goal while bonding with teammates? The top college coaches have a track record of producing MLB talent. You’ll get there. With all the money pouring into the sport, most big programs have elite training facilities.
“This has been the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,” said Ginn, who started 16 games this season with Mississippi State. “The college experience is nothing you can ever get back. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
Or can you?
There’s an argument to be made that this recent college-over-minors shift has been dictated by the professional game’s new draft signing bonus structure, adopted in 2012.
MLB teams are penalized if they spend more than their predetermined amount. So unless they’re using a top-tier pick on a high school kid, they aren’t often able to tempt him with high-dollar figures to sway him from college.
But Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin noted that he thinks MLB franchises have developed more trust in college players, that front offices don’t mind waiting if it means less risk.
Craig Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association, said high school prospects can quantify the potential payoff from the college game more clearly: faster promotion through the minors and more earning potential.
The college game, he said, “is so, so good right now.”
Rocker exemplifies that. He might be the highest profile freshman to take center stage at the CWS — at least in recent history.
He was interviewed by Jim Rome last week. He got a social media shoutout from Patrick Mahomes. He had the baseball world abuzz 10 days ago.
But he said he wasn’t thinking about the pros then. He isn’t now. He’s good with where he’s at.
“The money’s always going to be there,” he said.
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