By Rob Rains
Over the last couple of months, as Phil Statler saw more and more scouts coming to watch his son Tyler pitch, it became likely he was going to be selected at some point in this year’s amateur baseball draft.
That became a reality on Wednesday, when the Cardinals selected Statler in the 14th round, one of their 30 third-day draft picks.
Thirteen months ago, that possibility was about the farthest thing from Statler’s mind.
“From a parent’s point of view, we just wanted him healthy; the heck with sports,” Statler said on Wednesday.
It was on May 4, 2018, when Tyler was a junior at Hononegah High School near Rockford, Ill., that his future hopes of playing professional baseball appeared to change. Statler was batting in a game against rival Boylan High School when a pitch came up and in. His father was watching from the stands.
“He kind of turned to get out of the way but he didn’t drop his bat,” Phil Statler said. “The ball ricocheted off the handle.”
The ball hit Tyler directly in his left eye.
“Doctors being doctors always kind of prepare for the worst,” Phil Statler said. “They said, ‘We have to bring in a brain trauma surgeon.’ They thought his sinus cavity had been pushed back into his brain.
“One of the first doctors he talked to said, ‘Well, you probably are never going to see out of this eye again.’ That was the first thing out of her mouth. How do you say that to a 16-year-old kid?”
For the next several weeks Tyler was not able to see out of his left eye. As he recovered from the concussion and headaches he suffered, because of the accident, he underwent reconstructive surgery around his eye and nose.
He also began researching pitchers who were able to play baseball even if they could only see out of one eye.
“There was no doubt at all I would come back,” Tyler said Wednesday. “I knew I would find a way, even if I wasn’t able to see. Looking at players who played with only one eye kept my hopes up.”
It took a couple of weeks before the Statler’s were convinced that Tyler would be healthy. Whether or not his eyesight would return then became the question.
“First there was just total darkness in the eye,” Phil Statler said. “Over time a little light started to shine through, then he was able to start seeing outlines and figures and shapes. About six weeks after the accident his vision was still blurry but he could make some things out. It took a good two months before he could see again.”
Even when his eyesight came back, however, more hurdles remained. Tyler lost a key summer of playing baseball in front of scouts. A basketball player his first three years in high school, the 6-foot-6 Statler decided not to play the sport as a senior in part because of a fear he might get elbowed accidentally in his eye.
His father and coach Matt Simpson were worried about how he would perform when he got back on the mound.
“Once he was cleared to play he was ready to get back out,” Phil Statler said. “From a psychological point of view I was like, ‘How is he going to handle this?’ But he was ready to rock and roll.”
Said Simpson, “If you look back at how everything went down, for him to get back to the point where he was this year, it’s really remarkable. It’s a testament to his hard work and the courageous effort on his part to get back out there after what he went through. He was laid up for three or four months, he couldn’t see out of his eye for two months. As a 17-year-old kid that’s something they shouldn’t have to go through.”
The person who seemed least affected as Tyler returned to the mound this spring was Tyler.
“It was definitely something I had to overcome but I managed to do it and keep doing what I love to do,” said Tyler, whose vision in the eye is now back to 20-20. “I just looked at it that it was something that happened for a reason and that when I came back I would be better than I was before I got hurt.”
That in fact turned out to be the case for Statler, who was signed to play at Southeast Missouri. He became the MVP of his conference this season, allowing just 17 hits in 52 2/3 innings with 89 strikeouts and 27 walks. He posted a 1.33 ERA while holding opponents to an .094 batting average.
“I knew talent wise physically he got himself back to where he was, he really was dedicated in the weight room,” Simpson said. “I wasn’t worried he would be able to do it physically; I was more worried about the mental part of the game. He played first base when he wasn’t pitching so he still had to hit. All that stuff worried me, but he had no issues with it.
“At the high school level he didn’t have to get beyond his fastball much (which he can throw 95 mph) probably to the detriment of his secondary pitches. He had a decent changeup but he wasn’t forced to use it a lot. His slider is a work in progress. Once he gets into a program and works on his mechanics, I think he’s got a pretty high ceiling.”
Statler was one of several players invited to attend a pre-draft workout last week at Busch Stadium. It was his father’s first visit, and he admitted, as a die-hard Cubs fan, having his son working for the Cardinals, even in the low levels of the minor leagues, is going to be an adjustment.
Scouting director Randy Flores is looking forward to seeing what Statler can do at that level.
“A remarkable story,” Flores said. “What he’s done in a short amount of time is something that was extremely intriguing to us. It’s a credit to our scout (Nathan Sopena) and making sure that no stone is unturned. Independent of that (the injury) that’s a difficult place to scout. The looks are limited, the weather is difficult. A lot of things came together there to give us the conviction to make the pick. … He was worth betting on.”
Just getting a chance to pitch professional, knowing what he had to go through, was all Tyler was thinking about on Wednesday.
“I’ve never been more excited in my life,” he said. “Ever since I was young I told myself I wanted to play major league baseball. I’ve worked hard to get where I am right now.”
Among the Cardinals other picks on Wednesday were a few with local connections. They selected Missouri right-hander Cameron Dulle in the 30th round; right-hander Anthony Greene of Jefferson College in the 33rd round, and catcher Kurtis Byrne of CBC High School in the 38th round.
Here is the complete list of the Cardinals’ day three selections:
Round 11, `Connor Lynn, RHP, USC
Round 12, Patrick Romeri, OF, IMG Academy HS (Fla.)
Round 13, Tommy Jew, OF, UC-Santa Barbara
Round 14, Tyler Statler, RHP, Honongah HS (Ill.)
Round 15, David Vinsky, OF, Northwoods University (Mich.)
Round 16, Thomas Hart, RHP, Wakeland HS (Texas)
Round 17, Michael YaSenka, RHP, Eastern Illinois
Round 18, Aaron Antonini, C, Middle Tennessee St.
Round 19, Zarion Sharpe, LHP, North Carolina-Wilmington
Round 20, Adrian Mardueno, RHP, San Diego State
Round 21, Jack Owen, LHP, Auburn
Round 22, Zade Richardson, C, Wabash Valley Juco (Ill.)
Round 23, Brylie Ware, 3B, Oklahoma
Round 24, Will Guay, RHP, Concord Univ. (W. Va.)
Round 25, Alexander McFarlane, RHP, Habersham Central HS (Ga.)
Round 26, Jeremy Randolph, RHP, Alabama
Round 27, Eric Lex, RHP, Santa Clara University
Round 28, Tyler Peck, RHP, Chapman University (Calif.)
Round 29, Scott Politz, RHP, Yale
Round 30, Cameron Dulle, RHP, Missouri
Round 31, Dylan Pearce, RHP, Oregon State
Round 32, Chandler Redmond, 2B, Gardner-Webb University
Round 33, Anthony Green, RHP, Jefferson (Mo.) College
Round 34, Ben Baird, SS, Washington
Round 35, Logan Hofmann, RHP, Colby Community College (Kan.)
Round 36, Kyle Skeels, C, Coastal Carolina
Round 37, Chris Newell, OF, Malvern Prep School (Pa.)
Round 38, Kurtis Byrne, C, CBC High School (Mo.)
Round 39, T.J. McKenzie, SS, The Benjamin School (Fla.)
Round 40, Cash Rugely, SS, Navarro (Texas) Junior College
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo courtesy of Phil Statler