HOUSTON - John McCormack hasn't quite had a player like shortstop C.J. Chatham in his program until now.
Florida Atlantic has consistently been a quality program in South Florida and pumped out some impressive talent. However, the Owls also have lacked the front-line elite talent in the Major League Baseball draft. That was until Chatham, who has progressed brilliantly every year he's been with the Owls, while also choosing a very good time - his junior season - to put together his most impressive campaign. Not only does the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native have a great chance to hear his name called on the first day of the draft, likely as a second or third rounder, he also has an opportunity to help guide the Owls past a regional with hopes of ending the season at the College World Series before likely embarking on a professional career.
He's a potential once in a coaching lifetime type of player, and McCormack continues to be amazed at the full set of qualities the impressive 6-foot-4, 185-pounder, brings to the field each day.
"Since he got back in the fall, he's just been on the ball consistently, and honestly, one of the greatest things about him is that he really wants to win. Like I've told the scouts, the only thing he really wants is the respect of his teammates," McCormack said. "C.J. is playing extremely hard and he cares about this team and program, and he's really been a pleasure to coach."
While Chatham is having a season to remember, the road he took to get to this point is rather interesting. Right now, Chatham is hitting at a .368 clip with 17 doubles, four triples, seven homers and 45 RBIs, All-American type of numbers, while he's also shown better bat control with 20 walks, which is two more than he had the past two seasons combined.
But while he's flourishing as an infielder and hitter for the Owls, there was a time when some thought he might evolve into a pitcher. In high school, Chatham, who was undrafted, showed some real promise with some arm strength, sitting 90-92, and up to 93 with his fastball, along with a quality slider. Some in the scouting community thought he'd be a pitcher at the college level, while others sided with the idea of him as a position player.
"He was always really athletic, kind of wiry strong coming out of high school," a National League scout said. "It was kind of a split camp on him pro-wise, as some thought his future was on the bump, and others liked him as a hitter. I thought he was going to be a pitcher, as I wasn't sure if he was going to be able to hit consistently in college.
"What's he done at FAU is pretty impressive," the scout continued. "He's put himself on the map, he's gotten stronger and he's manned the shortstop position well the past couple of years. He's showing some power, worked hard and really gotten better throughout his career. I would not be surprised to see his name called on the first day of the draft. He's probably a second rounder for me."
As a hitter coming out of high school, McCormack felt like Chatham really needed to work on his plate approach. Chatham was a free swinger in high school, and that approach wasn't going to work in college. The talented shortstop heeded that advice, and he finished his first season hitting .300 with four homers and 26 RBIs, quality numbers indeed. He also made strides as a sophomore last year, hitting .335 with 22 doubles, three triples, three homers and 44 RBIs. Still, his on-base percentage the first two seasons were .336 and .361, respectively, but has improved to .433 this spring.
"I think the biggest thing for me in C.J.'s game that has improved is just his plate maturity. He's been able to lay off pitches this season, and he's really handled moving around in the lineup well," McCormack said. "I thought he needed a fair amount of improvement in the box coming out of high school, and he's now to the point where he has a lot of confidence in hitting a fastball, changeup and breaking ball."
As impressive as Chatham's offensive skill set is, it's his defense that has most scouts buzzing. Chatham showed very consistent actions and instincts against Rice this past weekend. He made good breaks and angles on balls, had a quick arm to first base, and also turned double plays in swift form with he and second baseman Stephen Kerr offering up an outstanding tandem. Though some scouts see him moving positions at the next level, he absolutely looked like someone who feels comfortable enough to stay there moving forward.
"When you go see C.J., your gut is telling you that you want to move him from shortstop. But, the more and more you watch him, you really he has good instincts, good footwork, and the hands work really well," the National League scout said. "He managed his position well, and the more you watch him, the more you want to somehow keep him at shortstop. From a defensive standpoint, he's just one of those steady guys. What you see each time out is what you're going to get.
"Offensively, as the weather started warming up, he just started getting better and better. He has swung the bat well, and he's got some length to his swing," he said. "He's got some feel for the barrel and there's leverage in the swing. He does a good job of going gap to gap and in a draft like this where it's not rich in shortstops, he's going to move up a little bit."
In the meantime, McCormack and the Owls will enjoy Chatham's services for at least a few more weeks. Ranked the No. 16 college prospect for the upcoming draft, Chatham will soon have a decision to make. But for now, it's all about being a leader for his team and making the best out of what has been a memorable 2016 campaign.
Chatham will move on, but McCormack won't forget it. After all, he's truly one of a kind.