CARY, N.C.—By the fourth day of USA Baseball's Tournament of Stars, it didn’t matter how tall Nick Madrigal was.
The scouts, coaches and other players had seen the 5-foot-7, 145-pounder play for three days at the showcase. They knew that the Elk Grove (Calif.) High product was one of the top middle infielders among the field of 108 high school invitees competing to make USA Baseball’s 18-and-under National Team.
The double play drills were the clearest indication. Madrigal’s hands are quicker, his footwork is more advanced and his throws are more accurate.
Madrigal steps up to the front of the line at shortstop, ready to field and make a toss to second base on the front end of a double play. Immediately after the crack of the bat, he moves to his right to get around the ball and places his left foot slightly behind his right while lowering his glove to the ground. As the ball meets leather, Madrigal is already starting the motion to toss to second. He pivots his body and pushes off with his right foot, to put more strength behind the underhand toss. He keeps his right arm straight and firm, to keep the ball on a line and follows the ball after the throw to make sure it's on target.
All of this happens in less than two seconds. It happens too quickly for the player at second to catch the ball—even though he didn't have to move his glove an inch.
That quickness and precision isn't the first thing people notice when they see Madrigal though. For most, the first thing that comes to mind is that he stands just 5-7. His manager for the week, Hank Manning—who is also the head baseball coach at Pace University (New York)—thought the same thing.
"Well, I guess first impressions were probably like everybody else," Manning said. "He's just an undersized guy."
However, Manning quickly realized that Madrigal was more than just a small high school infielder.
"Right away you see the athleticism and then you see his bounce and his ability to play the infield," he said. "And he really has a lot of energy and he makes things happen. Sometimes they say good things happen in small packages … that's definitely what you have with Nick."
That package could contain the most advanced defensive middle infielder in the entire class, according to TOS position player coordinator David Eckstein, a former major leaguer who stands just 5-foot-6.
"It is definitely rare to see someone who, at that age, has the ability to understand the proper foot technique to get in position for the ball, and then have the quickness in the hands and have it transfer to a game," Eckstein said of Madrigal. "You can see it all you want in showcase, because there are a lot of guys out there. And especially some of the shortstops that are more towards the top of the list right now—and they don't even compare to Nick.
"They can do it in a showcase, but then you actually put them in a game and everything slows back down and they put themselves in bad positions, especially on routine balls. And Nick doesn't do that. Nick transfers what you see in a showcase into a game, and that's what's so exciting about him."
The path that Madrigal took to become so polished at 17 years old isn't a complicated one. It involved ground balls. Lots of them.
"Buckets of ground balls," Madrigal said. "Me and my dad go out pretty much every day … It kind of just came, but a lot of it came from working on it a lot."
One evaluator said that work has paid off.
“What he does defensively is very impressive for a player his age,” an American League crosschecker said. “He cuts down ground at shortstop in a very advanced way and puts himself in advantageous throwing positions. His hands are incredibly quick and help his arm play up.”
But the Oregon State commit isn't just a one-dimensional player. He brings talent to the offensive side of the game as well—even if he's not as refined with a bat as he is with a glove.
"(I'm) kind of a table-setter," Madrigal said. "Just trying to get things to go, and get on base. Maybe try and steal a couple bags. Basically try and get things going. Just base hits, gap-to-gap and let the big guys do all the work."
His quickness isn't just in his hands, and it helps him make an impact on the bases and out of the box. Madrigal posted 70-grade run times throughout the tournament, and was the third-fastest player in the 60-yard dash, with electronic times of 6.50 and 6.63.
"You know offensively, he creates things as well," Eckstein said. "Especially with his speed getting down the line. You saw him be able to just push bunt, kind of right at the first baseman, and then he actually beat the ball to the first baseman so it was an easy base hit.
On one sprint toward the bag, the righthanded-hitting Madrigal was clocked at 4.04—also a 70-grade time.
However, Manning stressed how Madrigal needs to avoid hitting the ball in the air to take advantage of his plus-speed.
"I just told him he's gotta make sure he stays with the line drives and groundballs," Manning said. "He gets on base and he'll turn that single into a double."
Eckstein echoed that and also talked about how Madrigal’s swing had more power than for what most gave him credit.
"From just watching, he has the tendency of being more into the air as opposed to a line drive," Eckstein said. "So the biggest thing for him is to make sure that he stays down through the zone.
"There's still a lot more there in that swing. I think one thing that's a little sneaky about him is the fact that he does have pop. Everyone gets so caught up in how small he is, but the ball can come off his bat well, where the defenses will have to play him true. They can't just suffocate him like within the outfield and come in, because he has the ability to go gap-to-gap with his swing."
The contact-oriented Madrigal has advanced bat control and barrel awareness. In his three-year high school career, Madrigal has struck out in just 4.3 percent of his plate appearances and only 2.4 percent this season as a key catalyst on the team that won the Boras Classic.
Madrigal showed the ability to hit to all fields and produce above-average contact rates in Cary against the best high school pitching in the class. Madrigal was the only player with more than 10 plate appearances in Cary who did not strike out, hitting .389/.421/.444 in 19 plate appearances. He also caused havoc on the bases, stealing three bases, the second-most of any player at TOS.
READY FOR NEXT STEP
With a set of tools that includes a polished defensive game at the most difficult position on the diamond, plus-speed and hitting approach with upside, Madrigal has the talent—and desire—to play at the next level. At the moment though, Madrigal isn't sure where that might be.
"Pretty much just play at the next level, wherever it is," he said. "I mean professional would be … if I got the opportunity to do that, that would be a huge blessing."
Eckstein is a bit more sure of where Madrigal could play, and after winning the 2006 World Series MVP award with the St. Louis Cardinals at 5-6, Eckstein is just the man who would know best.
"I think he can play shortstop in the big leagues right now, to be honest with you."
For now though, Madrigal will be content with making the USA 18U trials roster and focusing on making the final cut in Houston this August. And until that arrives, he's going to be out on the field, working on his game and proving that good things can come in many different shapes and sizes.
"Size doesn't really matter," Madrigal said. "I mean, like Dustin Pedroia. He's one of my favorite players and I look at him, and he's not very big at all, but he's one of the best players in the MLB. So size doesn't matter at the end of the day, it's just how you play the game and how hard you play it."