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 even have a player who has a shot at playing professional baseball. The El Toro Chargers had twelve gold gloves and seven platinum gloves on the court at a time, although no one watching their games was aware yet.
“I usually played second or third base when he was playing shortstop, and if he was throwing, I was playing shortstop,” said Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman. and holder of three gold gloves and two platinum gloves.
The other 12 awards belong to Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado, a player Chapman recalls watching practice behind the plate in catcher’s gear for scouts who were eager to time his pops, believing his frame and his defensive sense would not allow Arenado to stay on the infield.
Scouts, it turns out, make mistakes.
“It was more, like, laughable,” Chapman said. “I knew there was no way he wasn’t a great third baseman. I mean, his hands are too valuable not to be in the infield.
Arenado was two classes ahead of Chapman, so it’s no surprise the younger player had to make room for the elder. Arenado’s brother, Jonah, was three years behind Chapman. He would go on to play in the minor leagues for the San Francisco organization, but when Chapman was the rising prospect, it was Jonah Arenado who moved up, mostly to first base.
“We had a really good team,” Chapman said with unparalleled modesty. “It was a bit difficult to make the team as a young player, that’s for sure.”
Steel sharpens steel
Warm weather, high population areas produce baseball players with more frequency than other locations. Playing high school baseball in Orange County certainly increases the chances of being exposed 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 go where the players are.
Cardinals see the benefits on their active roster. Arizona natives Nolan Gorman and Matt Liberatore weren’t on the same high school team, but played as teammates so often in leagues and travel ball tournaments that their progress could be recorded together, until ‘when they arrived in the majors.
“He pushed me to push myself in high school because I wanted to play 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 15, and he was probably 17 or 18.
“You know the way he used his hands and then I tried to throw the ball as hard as he did. I don’t think I was successful at that age,” he laughed.
Chapman offers more praise
With a pitcher and a batter, it’s easier to test the skills of two players against each other. With Arenado and Chapman side by side in the same infield, they’ve instead spent time learning from each other, developing signature styles that are as contrasting now as they would have been stunning when the two were teenagers. .
“I think I rely on my arm a little more than Nolan did,” Chapman explained. “I know he has a great arm, but Nolan grabs the ball and gets rid of it quickly. He has a good touch on his throws. He can catch a hot hit and then release it fairly quickly.
“Nolan throws a lot on the run, and he’s good at it. It has good touch and feel. I can throw well while running, but if I have the chance, I choose to put my feet down and I rely a little on my arm.
Watching them trade places at third base during pre-game work is seeing each practicing the opposite skill. Chapman was picking up and throwing on the run, and Arenado is fond of making difficult throws or repeating throws that have recently vexed him.
“He’s in his own league”
When at the start of the season Arenado made uneven throws to the first with his feet moving, he changed tactics in the game for a short time while focusing on restoring that balance to his regular work. Now the problem is fixed, he’s got his balance back and his throws look like they always have.
“He’s in his own league. There is no competition with him,” Chapman conceded. “He’s one of my favorite players, so it’s fun to see all the success he has. We don’t play against each other often, but when we do it’s a lot of fun.
Fun for them, maybe. Less fun for opponents and teammates, although at least now a team full of professionals has a chance. Those poor high school kids were at sea.