When California head baseball coach David Esquer salvaged one player from the 2010-11 signing class – the class that the Bears had to release, following the Sept. 28, 2010 cut of the program by the University – he didn’t have any promises to give that one player. But, that one player had plenty of promise.
When Chris Paul -- drafted in the sixth round of the MLB Draft on Tuesday (170th overall) – got his release from UC Santa Barbara – who he signed with following the program’s cut – then-new Gauchos head coach Andy Checketts was reported to have said, “I just lost an All-American.”
That pressure never got to Paul, even though he was hitting just .236 coming into his senior season (85-for-360).
“I wouldn’t say it did. I think it was just fate that brought me back to Cal, by circumstance of what happened,” Paul says. “That was tough, for me, when it first dropped. I went to Santa Barbara, and I left before I knew Checketts was going to be there, but then I found out, and I think I was meant to go to Cal. It just happened for a reason.”
Paul never got to be that All-American, but as a senior, he led the Bears back to the playoffs for the first time since that 2011 College World Series run, and led Cal to 36 wins, the program’s second-highest win total since 1991. Paul was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection, and Pac-12 All-Defensive team selection for the Bears in 2015, after spending three seasons as a shortstop.
Paul never had the closest relationship with Esquer, but what he did as a senior caused Esquer to gush about his leadership following the team’s playoff exit against Texas A&M, a game in which Paul hit his final home run as a Bear.
“I could not be prouder of any player,” Esquer said. “Chris really persevered and had a great year. There was not a better first baseman in the nation, or a better person. We are thankful for his effort and leadership during his time in Berkeley. He set a standard for others to live and play up to for years to come.”
“The relationship definitely grew, from the beginning,” says Paul. “I’m kind of a quiet kid, so I didn’t really interact much with him, in the beginning of my career, and towards the end of my career, it definitely changed a lot, once I stepped into the shoes that the coaches expected me to fill. The relationship definitely changed when I started, this year, having better performance, and being a leader on the team.”
"I think it was just fate that brought me back to Cal." -- Chris Paul
Paul actually came in to Berkeley as a shortstop, and played 17 games there as a true freshman, and five at third base (three of those were as a late-inning defensive replacement)
With Derek Campbell and Mike Reuvekamp splitting time at short during Paul’s sophomore year, he played 24 games at third, 17 at short, and parts of two games in the outfield, slugging eight home runs, but hitting just .221. As a junior, Paul was so-so at the plate, hitting .264, but in the field, he was a liability, with a .919 fielding percentage. That year was a particular disappointment, as he had hit over .300 in the prestigious Northwoods League the summer prior.
“At times, it was long, and a struggle, frustrating, but, you know, as a senior, you really want to leave your program in a better place than when you found it,” Paul says. “My freshman year, we had all the talent in the world, but just came up short of a Regional. Then, the next two years were tough, definitely tough, but I think we found our identity as a team, and I think everybody bought into a culture, that got us to where we wanted to be, and obviously a Regional team that was inches away from being a Super Regional team. It was definitely a huge turnaround, and definitely something fun.”
Going into his senior season, Paul – who had never played a single inning at first base – was asked to fill the shoes of legendary Devon Rodriguez. At a rangy 6-foot-3, 210, Paul only started taking grounders at first in the fall of 2014, also splitting time at third with sophomore Lucas Erceg. Of all his stats as a senior, the most impressive is easily his team-best .994 fielding percentage.
“Of course, you want to play shortstop your whole life. Everybody wants that. At the end of the day, you just want to help the team, whatever’s best,” Paul says. “To be honest, I played third base all fall, and I would take some grounders at first, just to get the foots down when the pitchers were covering. It’s a little bit different. You have a lot more time over there, so it’s a little bit easier in that sense, but I was just taking groundballs, and groundballs are groundballs at a corner position.”
Paul’s versatility – having played left and right field, shortstop, third base and first in his career – is part of what attracted the Twins, who drafted two Bears – pitchers Trevor Hildenberger and Michael Theofanopoulos -- last season.
Both Hildenberger – who currently owns a 2-1 record and a sterling 0.57 ERA in 31.2 innings out of the Single-A Cedar Rapids bullpen – and Theofanopoulos – who is sporting a 1-1 record and a 1.93 ERA in 32.2 relief innings for the same team – sent congratulatory texts to Paul following his selection.
“Yeah, I got texts from both of them, and they’re like, ‘Aw, man, can’t wait to have you come out here and play with us,’ so I’m really looking forward to getting back to work, and hopefully joining them on a team one day,” Paul says.
Though he’s only played a few innings of right field, that’s where Minnesota drafted him. Paul – who has completed his American Studies degree, and graduated in May -- doesn’t know if the Twins were aware of his record-setting history at Laguna Beach (Calif.) as a receiver, but he’s long enough and has good enough speed to track down balls in the outfield, and has his shortstop’s arm. Paul has started just two games in the outfield during his career, against Washington as a sophomore.
“The past month, I talked to the scout in the area, Elliot, and he said, ‘I really like you,’ and I talked to him early this morning, and he said, ‘I think we’re going to take you as a third baseman,’” Paul said shortly after being drafted. “I think they drafted a high school third baseman a couple rounds before me, and then, my advisor was talking to them, it was pretty quick and simple. I was told any corner position, and I ended up being right field.”
Wherever Paul winds up, his bat certainly will play. At the plate, Paul finally fulfilled his tremendous promise as a senior.
He hit .325 (ninth in the Pac-12) in 54 games, all starts for Cal, with nine home runs (tied for fourth in the conference) and a team-high 45 RBI (tied for sixth in the Pac-12). He also used his long-dormant wide receiver speed to lead the team in triples with five (tied for second in the Pac-12), as well as slugging percentage (.562), which ranked him second in the conference. His 25 extra-base hits were also the most of any Golden Bear during the 2015 campaign.
The biggest difference for Paul was his plate approach, particularly when it came to his power to the opposite field. As a senior, he started driving the ball the other way, staying aggressive while at the same time allowing the ball to get deep, keeping his hands inside the ball and using his quick hips and long legs to shoot balls into the right center gap. It’s a mature approach, and one that will serve him well at the next level.
“I think they see that I can run a little bit. I’m not blazing, but I think I surprised some people,” Paul says. “I think, once I can get going, I can get going a little bit, but I think it does help that I did play receiver. I don’t know if they knew that, but I can track a ball down.”
Paul’s best comparison is to another multiple-position Bear, in 2011 World Series hero Allen Craig, though he has much more speed and is a more versatile and capable defender than the former St. Louis Cardinal. As seen in the first round of the draft, six of the first 20 picks were shortstops.
“It’s definitely, the scouts like it when you play a middle infield [position], especially shortstop,” Paul says. “You can convert a shortstop into pretty much everything. They really like that, and I think the more games you play there, they label you as more versatile. I think that’s a big thing for a lot of teams.”
Paul reports to a mini-camp in Ft. Myers, Fla. – the Twins’ spring training home – next week, flying out from his home in Southern California, and then, it’s on to short-season Elizabethton.
Paul finished his career at Cal with a .268 batting average in 563 at-bats, scoring 87 runs, driving in 98, slugging 27 doubles, seven triples, and 18 home runs, and, as he wanted to, he left his program better than it was when he found it.