Imagine how good the infield at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, California, must have been.
The overwhelming majority of high school baseball teams don’t have even one player who gets a shot at pro baseball. The El Toro Chargers had twelve Gold and seven Platinum Gloves on the field at once, even if no one watching their games was yet aware.
“I usually played second base or third base when he played shortstop, and if he pitched I played shortstop,” said Matt Chapman, third baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays and possessor of three Gold and two Platinum Gloves.
The other 12 awards belong to Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado, a player who Chapman recalled watching practice behind the plate in catcher’s equipment for scouts who were eager to time his pops, believing his frame and his defensive acumen wouldn’t allow Arenado to remain on the infield.
Scouts, it turns out, make mistakes.
“That was more, like, laughable,” Chapman said. “I knew there was no way he wouldn’t be a great third baseman. I mean, his hands are too valuable to not be in the infield.”
Arenado was two classes ahead of Chapman, so it comes as no surprise that the younger player had to make room for the older. Arenado’s brother, Jonah, was three years behind Chapman. He would go on to play in the minor leagues in the San Francisco organization, but when Chapman was the ascendant prospect, it was Jonah Arenado who moved around, primarily to first base.
“We had a really good team,” Chapman said with surpassing modesty. “It was kind of hard to make the team as a younger player, for sure.”
Steel sharpens steel
Warm weather, high population areas turn out baseball players with more frequency than other places. Playing high school baseball in Orange County certainly increases the chances of exposure to top talent at a young age, and in turn, that perpetuates the pipeline. Steel sharpens steel, and those with the resources and inclination to build businesses around amateur baseball are going to head to where the players are.
The Cardinals are seeing benefits from that on their active roster. Arizona natives Nolan Gorman and Matt Liberatore weren’t on the same high school team, but played so frequently as teammates in travel ball leagues and tournaments that their progress could be charted together, right up until the moment they arrived in the majors.
“He made me push myself in high school because I wanted to field and throw like him,” Chapman said of his former teammate. “I tried as hard as I could to copy what he did when I was only like 15, and he was probably, like, 17 or 18.
“You know, the way he used his hands, and then I tried to throw the ball as hard as him. I don’t think I was successful at that age,” he laughed.
Chapman offers more praise
With one pitcher and one hitter, it’s easier to test the skills of two players against each other. With Arenado and Chapman shoulder to shoulder in the same infield, they instead spent time learning from each other, developing signature styles that are as contrasting now as they would have been stupefying when the two were teenagers.
“I think I rely on my arm a little bit more than Nolan does,” Chapman explained. “I know he’s got a great arm, but Nolan catches the ball and gets rid of it quick. He has good touch on his throws. He can catch a hot shot, and then release it pretty quickly.
“Nolan throws on the run a lot, and he’s good at that. He has good touch and feel. I can throw on the run fine, but if I have the opportunity, I choose to set my feet and I rely on my arm a little.”
To watch them trade off places at third base during pregame work is to see each practicing the opposite skill. Chapman was scooping and throwing on the run, and Arenado is fanatical about making difficult throws, or repeating throws that have recently vexed him.
‘He’s in his own league’
When early in the season Arenado made uneven throws to first with his feet moving, he changed tactics in game for a short period of time while he focused on getting that balance back in his regular work. Now, the issue is sorted, he has his balance back, and his throws look like they always have.
“He’s in his own league. There’s no competition with him,” Chapman conceded. “He’s one of my favorite players, so it’s fun to see all the success he’s having. We don’t get to play against each other that often, but when we do, it’s a lot of fun.”
Fun for them, maybe. Less fun for opponents and teammates, though at least now a team full of professionals has a chance. Those poor high school kids were out to sea.