Last month, Southern Miss pitcher Tyler Stuart fulfilled his lifelong dream of being chosen in the MLB draft as the New York Mets picked him in the sixth round.
Prior to that, Stuart experienced one of his most fulfilling moments as he recorded the final out against LSU in the Golden Eagles’ Super Regional in June.
Yet Stuart’s road to those moments seemed like a far concept when he arrived in Hattiesburg back in 2018. In fact, Stuart would have to wait two years before finally stepping on the mound for the Golden Eagles. That’s due to him having to take back-to-back redshirts. The first was his freshman year, but he was then forced to take a medical redshirt in the shortened 2020 season after having Tommy John surgery.
“I did believe in myself,” said Stuart on being drafted. “If you don’t believe in yourself, then you probably will fall short of your expectations. In the back of my mind, especially since Day 1 of the rehab, I knew that this was the goal of getting the opportunity. It didn’t matter what round as long as I got that chance.
“It was one of the goals I set for myself before I entered college. It means the world to me.”
Stuart understandably took a redshirt his freshman season back in the fall of 2018 in order to better develop his control.
“He got here and went through the fall and didn’t think he was ready,” Southern Miss pitching coach Christian Ostrander said. “We thought the developmental part of it needed to come around and he agreed. We just started attacking this stuff that year and getting his delivery where it needs to be. We built him up, and everything went good through the spring.”
Stuart went off that next summer to New York to play summer ball but eventually learned that he tore his UCL.
“I think it happened over Christmas break,” Stuart said. I was just going to go at it and not get an MRI or anything. I was throwing through it. I got to a point where I was feeling pretty strong. It wasn’t bothering me at all, but when I got to the summer ball, that’s when it started bothering me really bad. I got the MRI, and it was partially torn.”
From there, Stuart underwent two of the hardest parts of his career. The first was the physical recovery, but the second was regaining confidence in his pitching.
“It was four months and a lot of physical therapy,” Stuart said. “It was a lot of strengthening my shoulder, my bicep, triceps and everything around the elbow. There’s not a lot you can do to the elbow itself. It’s more strengthening around it.
“I started throwing in November. When you start throwing, it’s so basic. It’s very back to the basics and repeating that arm path. You have to get a feel again with the ball in your hand. I’d be sitting around holding a baseball, trying to get that feel again on the seams and stuff like that. Tommy John rehab is really no joke. It’s a tough, long recovery. It was mentally and physically demanding.”
By the summer of 2020, Stuart was cleared to start throwing again, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, he couldn’t be under the supervision of his coaches. So Stuart was forced to work on his pitching by himself, and like many players in the Pine Belt area, he tried to find any opportunity to throw in a live game and was able to throw in the impromptu Deep South Summer Baseball League.
“It was hard because I couldn’t be (at Southern Miss) at all,” Stuart said. “That was a big learning stage where I was trying to throw pens and getting to the end of my recovery. I had to do a lot on my own.
“I remember the first time I threw, and I had no idea how my stuff was going to play, especially with having a hitter in there. I did a few live abs just before that, and it was fine.”
In his first outing that summer, Stuart threw for three innings and struck out five batters, walked two batters and allowed one hit.
Yet the summer work paid off, as Ostrander saw improvement in Stuart’s pitching.
“In the fall of 2020, to me, that’s when things started coming around,” Ostrander said. “I can remember the pen vividly where it seemed like the light bulb went off. The velocity started creeping up, and he had a really good fall for us then and carried over into the spring of 2021. There were ups and downs, so to speak, but he was showing the signs. Everything was kind of growing.”
Stuart finally pitched for USM in 2021, but in 13 appearances, his outings were filled with highs and lows.
“It was trying to repeat my mechanics,” Stuart said. I was having to throw a lot of off-speed, which is hard in the Tommy John rehab process. Throwing off-speed was probably the hardest part for me. I didn’t really develop an offspeed pitch that I could throw whenever and wherever I wanted. At the end of the season last year, I ended up having a pretty good breaking ball near the end of the year, but throughout the season, it was kind of hit or miss for my stuff. It truly felt like a freshman year to me, which it was my redshirt freshman year, but it was my third year of college.”
By the end of the 2021 season, Stuart posted a 7.21 ERA, struck out nine and walked seven in 16.1 innings. That summer, Stuart was sent to the Cape Cod League, where he could grow his confidence and develop his pitches.
“We got him to Cape Code league that summer,” Stuart said. “I thought that helped him mature and grow.
“It was confidence - him getting to that league where it’s the best of the best and it’s ‘oh my stuff is good enough.’ It built confidence for him. This past fall, he came back with more confidence about him. He was one for me that if he believed that he was a dog and he could take off.”
According to Stuart, he developed his offspeed that summer and switched to throwing a four-seam baseball, which tops out at 97 mph, both of which were critical in eventually raising the 6-foot-9 framed pitcher’s draft stock.
“I went to the Cape Cod League and developed my change up there,” Stuart said. “I started throwing it up there. I got back here with Keller and Oz and started throwing it a lot and having a lot of success with it. I was throwing it kind of wherever and whenever I wanted to, so it helped me this year.
“That was the biggest change. I did a four-seam fastball. We were looking at the trackman numbers, and it was screaming at us that we needed to live off that two-seam. I have a natural run with it, and I was kind of forcing the four-seam.”
For Stuart, the biggest lessons he learned were having patience and trying to have a stable approach to the game.
“I’ve always been a guy to stay in the middle,” Stuart said. “I’m a guy that tries to flush everything and whether the bad and good. What I took away from recovering aspect is the mental aspect of things. Baseball is a tough game. When I went through Tommy John rebab, I went back and relearned everything and built myself as a new player to where I’m more resilient and not get too hard on myself.”