Former South standout Tyler thrown into fire as ECU freshman
HUNTERSVILLE — Jeff Hoffman, East Carolina’s ace pitcher before he was injured, threw 92 mph — and that was his changeup.
“I’m serious,” said Eric Tyler, the former South Rowan catcher who recently finished his freshman season at ECU. “Jeff’s fastball was up to 98 and his changeup was 91-92 and dropped off of a table. I’d never caught anyone with stuff close to that. All his stuff was a step up. Had he stayed healthy he would’ve gone No. 1 or No. 2 in the draft.”
The 6-foot-4 Hoffman is so talented that the Toronto Blue Jays made him the ninth pick of the first round even after he underwent Tommy John surgery in May. He’s the highest draft pick ever out of ECU in any of the major sports.
“The first time I caught Jeff I had like four passed balls,” Tyler said with a groan. “After that, I tried to make sure I caught him every time he threw a bullpen. I had to try to get used to his stuff. We got comfortable with each other, and his confidence in me grew.”
Tyler eventually was able to handle Hoffman’s heater, slider and changeup, and Hoffman got confident enough in Tyler that he didn’t hesitate when it was time to bury a two-strike curveball in the dirt. He knew Tyler would block it.
Tyler was behind the plate for Hoffman’s most dominating — and last — performance of the season. He struck out 16 Middle Tennessee batters in a game in mid-April, firing 81 of 117 pitches for strikes. Tyler said Hoffman was throwing 97s and 98s in the ninth inning. Tyler went 1-for-3 at the plate, but the stats that pleased him most that day were no passed balls and no wild pitches.
“That’s not a day I’ll ever forget,” Tyler said.
Tyler was an exceptional high school player. He started four years on South’s varsity for coach Thad Chrismon and made three all-county teams and three all-conference teams. He committed to ECU even before a spectacular senior season in which he batted .390 with 27 RBIs and was equally dynamic defensively.
Perfect Game rated Tyler as the fifth-best catching prospect among North Carolina seniors.
ECU was excited to get him, and when Tyler arrived on campus, he expected playing time as a freshman.
“There was a plan in the place,” Tyler said. “Travis would catch three out of four, but I’d catch the fourth one.”
Travis is Travis Watkins, who was a standout at Cox Mill High in Concord. Watkins is a catcher who can really swing the bat, but a serious elbow injury — a stress fracture that required the insertion of a screw from his biceps to his forearm — ended Watkins’ 2014 season after he had played in nine games.
Watkins’ injury pushed Tyler, who turned 19 in May, into a lot of action immediately.
“They kind of had to throw me in there,” Tyler said. “The first game I started (on Feb. 21) was at Virginia. They were ranked No. 1 in the country. A team like that wakes you up in a hurry, and I realized there was a huge learning curve ahead of me. Everything you do offensively and defensively has to be so much faster. There never was much smooth sailing for me.”
Tyler’s throwing always has been good. He played in 37 games, starting 26 of the Pirates’ 59 contests behind the plate. He made only one error while throwing out 12 of 35 base stealers.
At the plate, he had a tough season with a .183 batting average, but he contributed to the offense with seven sac bunts. His on-base percentage was a respectable .333 thanks to 10 walks and six HBPs.
Most of the offensive highlights from Tyler’s freshman year came in ECU’s series at 12th-ranked Rice in early April.
“They were ranked high in the country and East Carolina never had taken a series from them,” Tyler said. “I walked and scored the winning run in the ninth on Friday when Drew Reynolds singled up the middle. Then on Sunday, I got a hit with two outs in the ninth to put us ahead and we won the game and the series.”
Tyler is concentrating on improving his hitting this summer and found a spot close to home. He’s with the Lake Norman Copperheads, who compete in the wood bat Southern Collegiate Baseball League.
“I think I tried to adjust so many things so often this season that I never got into any kind of a groove at the plate,” Tyler said. “But I think I’ll be a lot more consistent next spring.”
Tyler said Watkins won’t be ready this fall but should be good to go by spring.
Both will be playing in a new conference (American Athletic) and for a new coach, as Bill Godwin’s contract was not extended after nine seasons and 317 wins. ECU was 33-26 in 2014 and missed out on the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.