Watching the scouts watch Kumar Rocker, 2022 MLB draft man of mystery

IT'S WEIRDLY INSTRUCTIVE to watch how baseball scouts watch baseball players. Everything they do is intended to hide what they're actually doing, which has the unintended effect of making even their most subtle movements glaringly obvious. They also have another endearing quirk: They all know one another but don't want anyone to know why they're here, which is a particularly difficult feat when it's an independent Frontier League game on a 95-degree Friday night, the air wet enough to drink, and Kumar Rocker is pitching in Troy, New York, for the Tri-City ValleyCats. The scouts, more than a dozen of them, are here for just one reason.

Rocker is accustomed to the attention. For a second consecutive year, the former Vanderbilt star has earned an honor nobody seeks more than once: the most famous player in the MLB first-year player draft. Standing 6-foot-5 at 245 pounds, he is a right-hander with a big-league-ready arsenal: a 98 mph fastball, a wipeout slider and a hard curveball that buckles the knees of anyone looking for either of the other two. His motion is smooth and easy, almost nonchalant, and the ball leaves his hand from a three-quarter arm slot with a fluidity that gives the velocity an element of surprise, not an easy feat when it's emanating from the body of a defensive end.

The scout's job, then, would seem to be easy. Sturdy guy with great stuff, a repeatable delivery and a history of competing at the highest amateur level. So, what's the catch? "He's a big leaguer pitching in indy ball right now," says Pete Incaviglia, the ValleyCats manager who played 12 years in the majors. "If he's not a top-five pick in the draft, I don't know who is."

But among the many peculiar distinctions Rocker has earned over the past few years, this might be the most important: He has managed to be both overexposed and mysterious.

Varying amounts of fame have attached to Rocker since he was a 10-year-old roaming the world of travel baseball, where parents who were convinced that their youngsters were budding big leaguers still managed to loudly complain about their little preciouses having to face such a precociously large human. Says Rob Friedman, a pitching analyst who has watched Rocker -- the son of former NFL defensive end Tracy Rocker, an Outland Trophy-winning legend at Auburn and now the Eagles' defensive line coach -- in the Atlanta-area youth circuit for more than a decade, "He was a gigantic 10-year old, and he dominated, and people hated it. They acted like he was a grown man, and he was not. The stuff they yelled at him was just awful. They called him a monster and worse. They treated him like he was an adult, and it was easy to forget he was 10 -- he was 10. I asked him years later if it bothered him, and he said, 'It did at first, but I learned not to let it.'"

By the end of his freshman year at Vanderbilt, when he threw a 19-strikeout no-hitter in the 2019 NCAA super regional against Duke and then became the Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series, Rocker -- charismatic and dominant -- was as close as college baseball gets to a household name. Every third strike of those 19 strikeouts came by way of the slider, most of them in the dirt, and that pitch is on the short list of the most devastating in the history of college baseball. Had he been able to enter the draft that summer, there is little doubt he would have been picked No. 1 overall. But after the pandemic cut his sophomore season just as it started, his junior year began with a noticeable velocity decrease. Scouts detected a wandering arm slot. Judging strictly by the stat line, though, he remained a formidable force: 179 strikeouts in 122 innings and a WHIP of .934.

It was about this time last summer that the majesty ran headlong into the mystery. Rocker was drafted with the 10th pick of the first round and thrown into baseball purgatory when the Mets -- citing what they called troubling post-draft reports on the condition of his pitching arm -- chose not to offer him a contract. This chain of events triggered a uniquely unilluminating back and forth. Rocker, represented by agent Scott Boras, did not participate in a pre-draft program that would have released his health information, including an MRI, to MLB teams. Boras, dismissing concerns, says Rocker was cleared by "the foremost surgeons in the world." Mets owner Steve Cohen, facing criticism of him and his team, tweeted a response that seemed to suggest Rocker was just another line on a ledger: "Education time -- Baseball draft picks are worth up to 5x their slot value to clubs. I never shy away from investments that can make me that type of return." With his future a swirling, cloudy mess, Rocker could have returned to Vanderbilt but didn't, opting to work out through the offseason and join the ValleyCats to reestablish his status for this weekend's draft.

And now it's the first day of July, the draft a little more than two weeks away, and a couple of the scouts in attendance tell me their teams are approaching this like it's the last time they'll see Rocker before decisions are due. Rocker will face the Empire State Greys -- the 2-38 Empire State Greys -- a group that shambled out of a barnstorming-era bus parked in one of the few shade spots in the lot. Rocker's opponent, though, doesn't matter, because every pitch, once again, will be a referendum on his health and his attitude and the vagaries of his mysterious right arm. The scouts are ready. What can we learn by watching them watch him?

THE SCOUTS BOUNCE around like flies in a jar, angling to get a good look at Rocker as he prepares for his start. The prep work begins more than an hour before the game. As some of his teammates straggle out of the clubhouse eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, he stretches in center field, and against the fence in left center, and then close to the left-field line. He is by himself for the first 25 minutes, and then catcher Jonah Girand shows up, and the two begin to play catch, first with a weighted ball and then with a baseball. When Rocker moves to the bullpen, the scouting swarm moves with him. Some sit on the berm above him, others stand lower to watch from eye level. Rocker begins by walking from the bullpen mound to the plate with something called a Tidal Tank -- a plastic contraption half-filled with water -- across his shoulders. He lunges and squats and jerks left and right. Through it all, one lucky scout, a longtime friend of ValleyCats pitching coach Scott Budner, posts up against the bullpen's cyclone fence and talks to Budner the whole time. Just as the scouts pretend not to see one another, Rocker pretends not to see them.

About 30 minutes before first pitch, Budner hands Rocker that night's Los Puentes de Tri-City game jersey, part of the team's cultural awareness and diversity initiative, and Rocker holds it away from his chest with his thumb and forefinger. It is, despite the worthiness of the cause, a vertigo-inducing turquoise, orange, gold and lime green. They share a laugh, the 22-year-old Rocker and 65-year-old Budner, a man whose sartorial sensibilities would seem to run the spectrum from home whites to road grays.

Budner, a former pitching coach in the Mariners' system, came out of retirement after three years of, as he puts it, "playing golf and drinking wine" to work with the ValleyCats' pitchers. He is a jovial sort with a raspy laugh who looks as though he's spent the majority of his six-plus decades on the planet in direct sunlight. When it comes to Rocker, he says he takes his orders from Boras and the pitching experts employed by the Boras Corporation. In practical terms, this means Budner has done nothing but feed Rocker encouragement and recommend he use his changeup, the power pitcher's paradox: a pitch that gives bad hitters a chance but good hitters fits. Budner is here, at the very least, to impart that knowledge. "Kumar's a sooner-than-later guy for me," he says, "and he'll need that changeup at the highest level." Beyond that, Budner puts his hands in front of his chest and says, "I'm not here to change anything," as if warding off the mere suggestion that the thought had entered his mind.

Budner and I are talking in the stands behind third base, in the Sam Adams porch of Joseph L. Bruno Stadium on the campus of Hudson Valley Community College. ("The Joe," in the local vernacular.) Before I can get there, a scout gets wind of the plan and asks me if I can ask Budner a couple of questions. First, does Rocker travel with the team even though he doesn't pitch on the road? (Sometimes but not always, and when he does he sometimes volunteers to coach first base.) And second, how many pitches will Rocker throw that night? (A maximum of 75, which Budner hopes gets him through five innings.)

When Rocker takes the mound, it's immediately apparent that his delivery is compact and pared down, as if he hired an editor during his year off. He no longer has the exaggerated torque and fall toward first base -- the Bob Gibson kinetic spin -- he showed at Vanderbilt. It's a more composed, controlled vibe, almost casual. "You just don't see big, lumbering people who are so smooth and athletic," Incaviglia says. "Lots of times when guys throw hard, it's max effort. It's not max effort with him."

Not to be mean, but the Empire State Greys are basically nine pairs of shoes rotating through the batter's box. Many of them, in repeated acts of self-awareness, drop their bats in helpless surrender before the third strike even crosses the plate. The scouts, trying to see something nobody else sees, watch Rocker from the first-base side and the third-base side. They take photos and video. A couple of them -- fewer than I would expect -- train radar guns at each of his pitches. They know what they're seeing -- on this night: 5 innings, 7 strikeouts, 12 pitches of 98 mph -- but they watch as if they're human dowsing rods, hoping to pinpoint an underground aquifer churning and roiling below the surface. One guy gets up like he's going to stretch his legs and ends up on the berm behind center field, watching through binoculars.

The scout's job, in this instance anyway, is to find something wrong, whether it's mechanical, physical or psychological. In the bottom of the second inning, Tri-City's Denis Phipps smokes a massive homer halfway up the light pole in left center. As he rounds the bases -- slowly, in the manner of any self-respecting 36-year-old ballplayer who had 10 at bats in the big leagues 10 years ago -- the scouts train their eyes toward the ValleyCats' dugout. (Again, their attempts at subtlety fail.) They watch as the ValleyCats line up to congratulate Phipps, waiting to see if Rocker is one of them. Once he takes his spot in line and greets Phipps -- emphatically, big smile -- they turn and enter it into their notes. For one night, anyway, Rocker checks one box: good teammate.

"It's one of those curses," Friedman says. "When you've been that good for that long, people look for flaws in your game."

One scout for an American League team shrugs when I asked him what he thought. "Doing my due diligence," he says. "The stuff is definitely there. What we can see is great. There's a lot to like, and a lot of unknowns."

THE NEXT DAY, an unknown becomes known. Rocker, it turns out, underwent shoulder surgery in September. The surgery, described by Boras as a minor cleanup of bursitis and "inflamed tissue" resulting from a high school football injury -- "This is not a pitching-necessary idea," he says -- leaked out after teams were provided the surgeon's notes but no MRIs, which means they found out the mechanics of the operation but not the extent of the underlying damage.

"Rotator cuff, labrum -- all in great order," Boras says. "We just said to Kumar, 'Let's go to a doctor and look under the hood.' We know there's nothing wrong in regards to pitching, but peace of mind -- that's the most important issue. I told him, 'This is not for the teams; it's for you.' I'm so glad we did that because it liberated his psychology, and now we're seeing a free athlete. We did not want this to be an 'aha' moment -- oh, see, he really did need surgery. No, this was done for his personal state of mind. I've had 20 first-round pitchers with worse MRIs than his."

It strains credulity to think a pitcher at a career crossroads would willingly -- voluntarily, unnecessarily -- undergo shoulder surgery simply to improve his state of mind, but Boras says he told Rocker, "Now you can tell every team you're free and clear. All the concerns were dismissed by our process." Spin aside, the surgery, and its revelation nine months after the fact, highlights the ever-growing mystery. Peering into the future is a tough job under the best circumstances, and scouts dispatched to watch a game can't see under Rocker's skin to detect future problems or inhabit his mind to feel whatever he's feeling.

"We can only go by what happens in front of us," the AL scout told me. "And it looks pretty good."

There is always the question of workload, especially with college pitchers, but the extraordinary lengths the Mets took to pass on Rocker would seem to go beyond fears of looming Tommy John surgery, which many organizations view as a fait accompli for young pitchers. In his most famous game, the 19-strikeout no-hitter, Rocker threw 131 pitches, a wildly irresponsible number, but he was working on a once-in-a-lifetime performance and was still throwing 97 mph in the ninth inning. "It seems unfair to penalize a kid for being the ultimate competitor and going to the post every time," Friedman says. "I'm biased, I know, but is that what you want? Would you rather a guy not throw?"

Every assessment of every pitcher is at best an educated guess, at worst a coin flip. But what the scouts know is what they're seeing. The only clarity is on the mound: a mostly straight fastball that sits 96 to 98, two above-average breaking balls that look the same coming out of the hand but vastly different once they reach the plate. There's the work-in-progress changeup that has been unnecessary for most of his career but will grow in importance as he rises through a team's system. Over his five indy league starts, Rocker competed every time out. He got stronger every time out. His velocity stayed steadily in the high 90s, and he struck out 32 in 20 innings. And according to Budner, Rocker cleared a bar set by one of his former pupils, Felix Hernandez, by bearing down and throwing better pitches with runners in scoring position.

Do the eyes deceive?

A LOT OF unknowns. I'm thinking of those words from my scout friend as I await Rocker's media appearance after his first professional win. That scout, along with every other scout and executive in the game, is at the mercy of the information provided, and it's clear Rocker's indy league tenure is vigorously and comprehensively stage managed. He was not made available for any individual interviews. And after four of his five starts, the ValleyCats' public relations man stands in the hallway outside the team's clubhouse before a small group of reporters and issues a disclaimer: Kumar will speak only about his performance that night and will not address any questions pertaining to anything that happened over the past year. (After one start, a game Boras attended, Rocker did not answer any questions.)

The postgame exchange, nearly in its entirety.

Q: Do you feel you've proven what you need to prove?

Rocker: Not for me to decide. I just go day by day.

Q: You have an opinion, though -- right?

Rocker (unsmiling): Nah, never.

Q: Is there an excitement building as you lead up to the draft?

Rocker: That's exciting, for sure.

Q: How can you sum up your time as a member of this team if this is your last start?

Rocker: That it's the players who make a difference. These are the guys who stay in the game for a long time. There's a lot of baseball lifers here.

Q: How do you feel you've gotten better?

Rocker: I think I have a better understanding of pro hitters and guys with more ABs. And just grown up a little bit on the mound.

Q: How do you keep yourself motivated when it's obvious there's a huge difference in ability between you and the guys you are facing?

Rocker: It's a job. I look at it as a job. Looking at it as a job going out there every day. That's what I get paid to do.

And that was it. Intentionally vague, intentionally clipped. In other words, just the way they drew it up. If it feels nakedly calculated, that's because it absolutely is. Rocker's five-start stay in upstate New York was a feat of rhetorical engineering, designed expressly to make sure nobody left their assigned lane or said the wrong thing.

"Very weird," Friedman says. "Kumar is so smart and engaging. This is not the guy who needs that kind of protection."

Boras, who has played this song so often he can hum it in his sleep, says, "In fairness to the journalism world, I have to do my job as a lawyer. This is his career we're talking about, and you never know how people are going to receive information."

The no-heat, no-light philosophy appeared to extend concentrically away from Rocker. The mysteries of Rocker's past year, Budner says, are "inner dealings. I don't worry about none of that. That's the business side of things." Girand, who caught each of Rocker's starts and has played as high as Double-A ball in his career, told me he spent a lot of time around Rocker but never asked him about last year's draft, or the Mets, or the subsequent feeling of having the pillars of his world explode beneath him.

"I don't like to ask questions like that," Girand says. "I don't know if he is or isn't comfortable talking about it, so I just don't ask."

The day after what turns out to be his final appearance in a Tri-City ValleyCats uniform -- and what a uniform it was -- Rocker takes his Tidal Tank back out to the bullpen and goes through his day-after routine. When he's finished twisting and lunging, he trudges to the dugout with the Tidal Tank in tow, drops it off and jogs out to left field to shag balls during batting practice. At one point he takes his shirt off and stands bare-chested in front of God and the entire Albany-Troy-Schenectady tri-city region.

By now word has filtered through the ValleyCats that Rocker is moving on. He has proven what he needs to prove; he's on to better things. "He probably proved all he needed to prove after the first game, and definitely after the second," says Girand, who played college baseball for SEC rival Florida. "I have to admit, I had this preconceived notion: big name, Vandy guy, top-round pick, he should probably be in a system right now, so playing indy ball, he might be a little jaded. None of that turned out to be true."

So what now?

There are theories, of course. Instead of trading for a high-priced middle- or late-inning reliever, a contending team might draft Rocker mid-to-late first round, give him a bonus in the $2 million range, put him in the big leagues by September and pay him the big league minimum for however many healthy innings he can pitch. Or there's always the chance the shoulder surgery might, as Boras hopes, ease concerns, allowing a team near the top of the draft to rely solely on the eye test and pick Rocker early enough to wipe away last year's frustration. Or maybe his arm can't hold up to the rigors of professional baseball. Or maybe he pitches 15 years and never has a problem. Or. Or. Or. The shrug emoji has never been more appropriate.

"Kumar is listening to teams telling him he's pitching in the big leagues in September," Boras says. "Not scouts, either -- GMs. Kumar is instant coffee for the big leagues."

Scouts and executives have to be content with seeing what they can -- and are allowed -- to see. Five starts in indy ball checked off a few boxes, leaving just enough unchecked to prolong the mystery.