By Maria Torres
Grady Sports Bureau
Chewing gum was probably the worst thing Robert Tyler ever did in high school.
It landed him in the principal’s office for detention once and it caused what he described as a “huge situation.”
“I had a game that day, so (my) coach came and got me out of it,” said Tyler, a freshman pitcher for the Georgia baseball team. “My teacher did not like that at all. It was almost one of the first times I had ever got in serious trouble. (My dad) came up to the school — and it was just not good.”
The 18-year-old “goody two shoes,” a nickname thrown at him often by his high school teammates, has not strayed much from his mellow days spent at Crisp County High in Cordele. He still keeps himself out of trouble and he probably will not appear on a suspension list for a violation of team rules any time soon.
In fact, if what the coaches said about him before and after he arrived in Athens is any indication, the only lists Tyler’s name will grace will be in Georgia’s record books.
“You’re going to see a lot of Robert Tyler this year,” Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin said. “He’s going to be special.”
The 6-foot-4 right-hander with a 98-mph fastball has already shown himself to be one of the better pitchers on the team. Tyler (2-2) boasts a 1.54 ERA in 41 innings, two numbers that lead the Bulldogs among pitchers with more than four innings under their belts.
Hitters are batting only .184 against him. In eight appearances, he has given up just two doubles and a triple as far as extra-base hits go — and all of that he’s accomplished while being the youngest player on the squad.
Granted, the sample size is small. Tyler has made just five starts and has had only seven runs charged to his name. But if he keeps this pace, unrealistic as it may be, he could end the regular season with an impressive line between starts and relief appearances: 13 earned runs in 77 innings for a 1.52 ERA.
Only two pitchers have had better seasons in Georgia history. Wayne Minshew set the record in 1957 with an ERA of 1.02. Walter Glenn followed him the next year, posting an ERA of 1.32.
“I’m not sure what the plan for him is,” said sophomore Zack Bowers, one of Tyler’s primary catchers at Georgia. “But I know that whenever he comes into the game, he’ll be on point.”
When Tyler first donned Cougar blue and gold a few years ago, no one imagined he would turn into a dominant pitcher. Throughout middle school, he’d focused on playing the field and hitting.
His high school coach Bill Pate said he came in as a “short and chunky” freshman who could barely hit the mid 70s on a radar gun. He didn’t even get a varsity letter that year.
Come 10th grade, though, Tyler had shot up a few inches and grown into his body. His velocity shot up to the mid-80s and he was given the chance to get into varsity games a handful of times.
“I wasn’t sure what kind of baseball player he was going to make in those days,” said Pate, who’s been at Crisp since 2005. “But he was pretty good for his class.”
Pate might know a bit about what “good” is. In his 33 years coaching baseball, he has guided pitcher Tim Drew, who was drafted 28th overall in the 1997 draft straight out of high school, and his older brother J.D. through the program at Lowndes High School in Valdosta.
He also got the chance to manage Kyle Davies, who pitched in the major leagues between 2005 and 2011, in his short stint at Stockbridge High School in Henry County.
Tyler became a mainstay in the Cougars’ starting rotation as a junior. That 2012 season brought a lot of attention to the Cordele native, as he led the team to a 20-0 season by way of a 0.73 ERA and an average of 10.9 strikeouts per game.
His success took him all the way to the Perfect Game All-America Classic in San Diego and the Under Armour All-America Game at Wrigley Field.
It came as no surprise, then, that senior year would be hectic for Tyler.
“When his velocity got up in the 90s in 11th grade, that was when our eyes were opened,” said Andrea Tyler, his mother. “We were like, ‘Oh my goodness. This is about to get crazy. We might have something here.’”
Scouts started showing up at every one of Tyler’s games. Pate said he had to set up his voicemail with dates for when Tyler would pitch so the scouts wouldn’t bombard him with calls.
Through it all, Tyler’s ever-solid control barely faltered, not even in front of the people who held his future in their hands. His ERA increased to 1.99 that year, good enough for seventh-best in the state among seniors, but it wasn’t due to performance anxiety. Tyler suffered from knots in his shoulder in 2013, which he said affected his deceleration muscles and caused him to lose some velocity and command of his pitches.
Scouts lost interest in Tyler as a result. The Baltimore Orioles drafted him in the 28th round of Major League Baseball’s draft last June. But for the goody two shoes from a south Georgia town inhabited by just more than 11,000 people, the chance to come to Athens and play for Stricklin, who’s led five of his 10 teams into the postseason, was good enough. Tyler’s now got the chance to establish his worth.
“(Stricklin’s) always talking about go out and prove yourself,” Tyler said after notching his first career win against Furman University in a five-inning relief appearance on Feb. 24. “In a situation like this, I think I proved myself to be good.”
The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.