By STEVE KRAH
Developing the six-tool player is the focus for Baseball Academics Midwest, an Indianapolis-based travel organization which will field 19 baseball and softball teams in 2019.
“We have the five physical skills of baseball (speed, arm strength, fielding, hitting for average, hitting for power), but the most overlooked part is the mental skill,” says BAM president and co-founder Jake Banwart. “We maximize physical performance through mental training.
“We do classwork as well as visualization. We take what they learn mentally and implement that into physical performance (through drills, done at the Extra Innings Indy South indoor training facility).”
Off-season training is broken into two semesters — positional training (middles, corners, outfielders, pitchers, catchers and base running) and team training.
“We do it in a way that keeps their attention, keeps it interesting and keeps them engaged,” says BAM vice president and co-founder Adam Gouker. “Practice plans are designed to take what we learn in the classroom and immediately take it out in the indoor facility.
“We’re still teaching the physical and making sure they’re getting all the training they need there,” says Banwart. “We’re just adding that sixth element to it to make sure they understand.
“We’re teaching physically how to do it, but also mentally how to approach it.”
BAM players are taught the concepts of baseball philosophy, how to be a good teammate, positive body language and self talk, offensive approach to hitting defensive relays and cut-offs, pitching and pitch calling and base running.
All those areas span six or seven weeks and build on each other throughout that winter.
BAM coaches have been trained so it’s consistent language from the time they’re 8 through 17.
“When we talk hitting approach, I can talk to anyone in our organization with that same language,” says Banwart.
There’s no need to re-start each season.
“We teach each age group one year ahead of where we should be teaching them,” says Banwart. “If our expectations are higher, their expectations for themselves will match that. We teach our 9’s like 10’s and so on.
“We’ve seen good results from that.”
Gouker sees players grasping more about baseball earlier in life.
“They’re learning at a lot younger age there’s a lot going on in the game,” says Gouker. “They’re focused on where they’re supposed to be without the baseball, where they’re supposed to back up, where they go with the ball in certain situations.”
Banwart is a graduate of McHenry High School in the Chicago suburbs. He played baseball through his junior year.
“I had decent (college) offers,” says Banwart. “But I was so fed up with travel ball and coaching, I hated baseball for about five years of my life and I stopped playing.”
Banwart attended Anderson (Ind.) University and played tennis for a few seasons. That’s where he met Gouker, who went to Alexandra-Monroe High School and then played one season of baseball at AU.
The two later found themselves coaching together in travel ball. They eventually decided to start their own organization and do things their way.
After a stint as assistant to Terry Turner at Daleville (Ind.) High School (the Broncos won an IHSAA Class 1A title in 2016) and head coach at Liberty Christian School in Anderson, Ind., Banwart is heading into his second season as head baseball coach at Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis in 2019 with a staff of Gouker, Nathan Latimer and Cortez Hague (all of whom are also BAM coaches and utilize BAM concepts with the Falcons).
“It’s a culmination of what we’ve learned from other coaches, research and data collection,” says Gouker, who have talked about mental skills training with Diamyn Hall and hitting with Ryan Fuller among others. “We’re teaching kids a language.
“We’re pushing the academic portion a lot. We feel like we know the physical side as well as anybody.”
The idea is for players to understand the game. This is especially valuable for players who are being recruited by colleges. BAM had its first season in 2015 and has had 23 college commitments in two groups of graduating classes, including 2019.
“Coaches will get your 60 time, exit veto, throwing velocity and all those pieces but the one thing they don’t get to see very often is your baseball smarts or I.Q,” says Banwart. “If they’re there for one game, they might not see you make a play.
“If we’re able to win the 50/50 recruiting by providing opportunities for players to actually show off their mental skills and training, we’re giving those players an opportunity to be more successful or get to the highest level they’re capable of (attaining).”
There’s another piece to the puzzle.
“If you’re in a game and you’re over-prepared mentally then you’re able to transition what you’re doing to subconscious thought versus conscious action,” says Banwart. “We want players to know something well enough to feel like they’re just reacting.
“They’re not having to process and consciously think through those actions. It’s subconscious action that takes over.”
BAM, which operates with the help of several key partners, uses many of the same drills as high-level coaches.
“When we go into those we make sure players are aware of what the intent of that drill is,” says Banwart. “We’re not focused solely on result training. We break it down with intent so the mind can connect to the body.”
Banwart notes that professional athletes seem to rise to the occasion late in a game while some players sink to the level of their training.
“The better trained they are, the better they’re going to perform late in games or in tough situations which will give that visual appearance that they’re rising when, in reality, they’re playing with the same level they were earlier in the game,” says Banwart.
High school level players take into consideration things like the score, inning, number of outs, speed and direction of the ball and speed and position of the runners.
Banwart notes that the average time between pitches in Major League Baseball is 21.5 seconds.
“In those 21 1/2 seconds players are going to be thinking no matter what,” says Banwart. “They’re going to be thinking something. We just want to change their thinking and point it to what they should be thinking about.
“When they step in the (batter’s) box, they’re proactive with a plan instead reactive to a pitcher. We want to give our guys the feeling they’re in control of that at-bat versus they’re at the mercy of what the pitcher does.”
BAM players are encouraged to win the games within the game and things like swing count, average distance in the zone, max hand speed, max barrel speed and more are tracked on single-season and career leaderboards. Hits, stolen bases, saves etc. are also tracked.
BAM coaches are in the process of gathering baseline data and developing a Baseball Academics Rating (BAR) that can be used to show a player’s knowledge.
“It’s not catered to our program,” says Gouker. “It’s things anyone playing baseball or softball anywhere should know if they want to be as successful as possible.
“We’re finding some pro guys are missing some things they should know.”
They have also developed a metric — WIN (Worth In Numbers) — to valuate players.
WIN takes out everything out of a players control and counts how many runs they create total or average per game. Each base is treated like a quarter of a run.
“Players with a third of a run per game or more are typically high level players,” says Banwart.
By running the numbers for the last three seasons, the MVP winners and Cy Young Award winners in the American League and National League were the ones that should have won based on WIN.
BAM coaches talk about metrics and more on their YouTube Channel.
Latimer, who played at Perry Meridian and one season at the University of Indianapolis and coached with Andy Gossel at Covenant Christian before joining the staff at his alma mater, has totally bought into the BAM way.
“We can’t have academic in our name if we don’t teach it,” says Latimer. “We want you to be baseball smart.
“If you have the sixth tool that makes you a more complete player.”
Banwart and Gouker says BAM teachings have spread across the Indianapolis area and the organization is exploring expansion possibilities.
Representing Baseball Academic Midwest are (from left): vice president and co-founder Adam Gouker, president and co-founder Jake Banwart and Nathan Latimer. Banwart is also head coach at Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis and Gouker and Latimer are among his assistants. (Steve Krah Photo)