El Toro High School baseball coach Mike Gonzales couldn’t have known how good he had it back in 2009.
The Chargers had a senior shortstop, Nolan Arenado, who before long would develop into a National League MVP contender. Playing behind Arenado, studying closely how his older teammate went about his business, was an undersized sophomore named Matt Chapman.
One future major league third baseman playing behind another.
“It’s totally surreal,” Gonzales says now. “To see these guys as young kids playing in our local Little League, then coming through middle school and into high school, and to see where they are now, it’s pretty special for me. It blows me away.”
As you watch Chapman, the A’s rookie who is creating a buzz with his electrifying defense and power bat, know that much of who he is as a player traces back to his time as understudy to Arenado, a three-time All-Star with the Colorado Rockies and, at age 26, already one of the majors’ premiere all-around players.
At El Toro, located in Orange County, both played shortstop before eventually shifting to third.
“Taking ground balls at shortstop, I was just trying to emulate his actions, try and do what he did,” Chapman said on the current episode of the A’s Insider Podcast. “I think my arm got stronger just by trying to keep up with how hard he threw the ball. The things he did were incredible. I think I became a better player just watching him and trying to emulate some of the things he does and pick his brain.”
Chapman’s rifle arm definitely stands out when he’s at third base. Also obvious is the genuine joy and passion with which he plays the position. It’s apparent when you watch him take pre-game ground balls or see how he chases fearlessly after foul pop-ups near the bullpen in the Coliseum’s vast foul territory.
He and Gonzales both say that Arenado’s work ethic and zest for the game rubbed off on him. But Chapman arrived to El Toro’s baseball program with some innate qualities that foreshadowed his future as a 2014 first-round pick of the A’s out of Cal State Fullerton.
The first thing Gonzales noticed was how tiny Chapman was — just 5-foot-5 or so as a high school freshman. But that didn’t tell the full story.
“He was a tiny kid but his hands were magical,” the coach said. “He had good arm strength as an incoming freshman. He could hit, he could throw. He was undersized, but he knew the game. He was a student of the game.
“Even though he was just 5-4 or 5-5, he looked like a ballplayer. He wore his uniform right, glasses on top of his hat. He just looked the part. Then you look at his hands and arms, and arm strength. For how small he was, he looked like a miniature big leaguer as a freshman.”
Chapman says he hit a big growth spurt from his junior to senior year at El Toro, sprouting from about 5-8 to 6-1 and packing on 25 pounds. (For what it’s worth, the A’s media guide lists him at an even 6-feet and now 210 pounds).
He and Arenado occasionally see each other during the offseason when they drop by El Toro. Gonzales also hosts an annual Christmas party that both attend with their families, as does Yankees catcher Austin Romine, another El Toro grad.
“The way I measure a kid is the way they treat me and my family,” Gonzales said. “I have four kids. They always give them hugs, always say hello. To me they’re still little Matty and Nolan. It’s hard to believe that they’re better people than they are players.”