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Are Baseball-First Academies The Wave Of The Future?

Welcome to campus, baseball prospect.

You’ve got a core five classes, mostly in the mornings, to free your afternoons for skills work. That’s why you’re here after all. Maybe you’ll take a few extra cuts in the indoor hitting facility, or bulk up in the state-of-the-art weight room.

We really mean that. The advanced EliteForm-integrated squat rack even tracks your bar speed, letting you know whether to increase or decrease your weight to maximize power. The automatic video recordings help, too, when you can dissect your form afterward with coaches. How’s that for state-of-the-art?

Tired? Hurt? Hungry?

There’s a hyperbaric chamber in the training room just next door to the weight room, with a hot tub and ice bath as well as a full team of trainers and physical therapists. Johns Hopkins provides the health services here, and when you’re getting food in the cafeteria, there are handy guides breaking down the nutrition facts of each item and how they can help you bulk up, trim down or just eat healthy. As you eat, there are four huge flat screen TVs tuned to different sporting events and ESPN channels.

After your meal, take a stroll around the 600-acre campus, where you might pass future pro golfers working on their short game on a full 18-hole course. Maybe you’ll see a few pro soccer teams training in the offseason on one of the 16 (or 17 if you count the football stadium) soccer fields, or a half-dozen football players training for the NFL scouting combine.

Done for the day? Head back to the dorm, or villa, depending on where you’re staying. Grab a drink from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (one of two in the country) just because it’s there. You may as well. Relax at the resort-style outdoor pool, play some pickup basketball on a newly paved outdoor court, or if you’re in the mood for beach volleyball or ping pong, that’s there, too—all the while Stephen A. Smith is shouting about the latest sports headlines over outdoor speakers surrounding the complex.

Go to bed. Wake up. Do it all again. This isn’t a Division I college campus. This isn’t college at all. But it may as well be.

Welcome to IMG Academy.

“The thing that’s unique about this place is it’s just so comprehensive,” IMG director Dan Simonds said. “The things that these kids are getting in terms of nutrition training, vision training, it’s nuts. (Our) performance center is second to none. To have that kind of level of expertise and the fact that these kids really get to tap into a lot of different resources to just take their game to a whole new level.

“This place is a lot more run like a college than it is a conventional high school, when you look at the way the day is shaped out. The amount of skill-development that the kids receive, it really prepares them for a higher level. And that’s really what we’re all about.”

There’s been a movement the last few seasons with many elite high school baseball players moving from conventional high school programs and typical teenage environments to academies like IMG.

The program has produced 11 draft picks in the last five years, led by Padres lefthander Logan Allen — who will likely make his major league debut in 2019 — and a touted 2015 class that also included lefty Brady Aiken and righty Jacob Nix at the Academy’s post-grad program. The school has produced at least one draft pick every year since 2014. This year, IMG has a chance for multiple first-round picks, with prospects like righthander Brennan Malone and third baseman Rece Hinds transferring away from their former high schools in North Carolina and Florida, respectively, and instead playing on the pristine diamonds at IMG’s campus in Bradenton, Fla.

“I think it’s very appealing for a kid to come in here his junior or senior year,” Simonds said, noting the increase in talent the program has been receiving recently. “With some of the different tournaments we are running and the amount of exposure that the kids are having an opportunity to either play on our fields or come through here… Kids are seeing, well Blaze Alexander (Drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 11th round in 2018) went there and seemed to flourish. Levi Kelly (Drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 8th round in 2018) was here for two years and really seemed to elevate his game.

“I think a lot of kids feel like this is a healthy option,” Simonds said. “Certainly to be able to be down here in Florida and be in this kind of environment and culture and get the level of coaching that they are going to receive. I think that’s something that the kids really believe: ‘Hey, this will prepare me to play at whatever level I’m going to next.’ ”

While IMG is the biggest and boldest example of the academy structure in baseball, other similar programs are developing and finding success as well. About 140 miles northeast is TNXL Academy, which was founded in 2014 by Brian Martinez. Coaching summer ball at the time, Martinez too often saw that his players would progress and develop during the summer, but come back from their high school seasons having taken a step back.

After seeing the success of IMG Academy, he decided to start his own development-focused baseball academy—of a different breed and smaller scope—but of the same ideology. He started by training players like Brendan Rodgers and Logan Warmoth, who stayed at their high schools but came to Martinez for personal training. Shortly thereafter though, the program transitioned into a real high school alternative, with Martinez and his coaching staff handling the baseball and strength development, and the Florida Virtual School—the first statewide, internet-based public high school in the country—handling the academic side of things.

“We just dove into it a little bit and said, ‘Hey if you’re willing to leave the traditional mock up of high school, if you guys would be willing to trust us with the baseball part—which they kind of did already—we will hopefully facilitate the academic side good enough to get you guys ready,’” Martinez said.

Now, TNXL players go through a four-day-a-week, four-and-a-half-hour-a-day schedule that consists of position-specific development, hitting coaching and strength training. If players have a 3.0 grade point average or better through the Florida Virtual School, they can do all of their classwork at home and focus exclusively on baseball when they come to the TNXL facility. For those who fall under that threshold, classwork begins at 9 a.m., when a paid proctor is on hand for tutoring and assistance with coursework.

At both IMG and TNXL though, the work on the field is both the focus and the draw.

“In my eyes with TNXL, I don’t care about the wins and losses,” Martinez said. “What I care about is making sure you are prepared moving forward once you get to college or professional baseball. So that’s what I take away.

“What IMG and what we are focused on, is preparing them for the next level. I’m not saying that some high schools can’t do it, but this isn’t about wins and losses and their district championships or state championships. This is about being prepared, becoming young men, learning how to time manage, and also have a grueling sports schedule.”

This new academy path isn’t without its critics, however. IMG has heard it. TNXL has heard it. Many high school coaches are opposed to it, either because players get poached after spending two or three seasons with one school only to jump to another or because coaches believe that the traditional high school experience still holds value.

Greg Olsen, the head coach of a successful Calvary Christian High program in Clearwater, Fla., admits that development as a baseball player is not the top focus for his teams. Or even the secondary focus. For him, that’s a feature. Not a bug.

“Speaking for our program, we tell our parents, our No. 1 goal is for our players to develop spiritually,” Olsen said. “And then, second, is for our players to develop as a man on the personal side, and be able to walk into a college situation and to be comfortable to handle all the temptations and pressures that come with that. And then, third, is let’s develop them as a baseball player to be confident to step foot on those college campuses on that first day of practice, so they’re confident that they know what these coaches are going to expect from them.

“We prioritize things to where winning games might be way down on the list. But we definitely believe in development and I think if you talked with a number of high school coaches (around here) they would all say the same thing. I mean these guys have been doing it for years, they have been producing kids who have gone on to play at major universities and great baseball programs at the college level and these kids have stepped in as freshmen and played. And done very well.”

While major league scouts will flock to talent wherever it is, there are those who believe these programs aren’t worth the cost of admission—IMG’s annual high school boarding tuition checks in at $78,650—or that specialization isn’t worth sacrificing the athletic benefits that come with being a multi-sport athlete.

Still, for certain players, that pathway has been successful.

“I think a lot of the criticism and a lot of the people who don’t really understand what goes on here, it’s easy for them to pass a lot of judgment,” Simonds said. “And I get it. I understand that there could be some frustration with a player from a certain high school leaving. But the way I look at it is: it’s what’s in the best interests for that particular player.”

“And I will tell you right now, this isn’t for everybody. It really isn’t. But for those that feel like this is the right thing for them and it’s going to help them in their future and their future in the game, then to me if it’s truly about the kids—and I think that’s what it’s about—and they are fortunate enough to come to a place like this, I don’t know how you don’t support that. And we have kids who come here and hey, it’s not for them. They may not be willing to have the level of sacrifice or the level of commitment that it takes. So it takes a certain type of kid that this is right for.”

At TNXL Academy, Martinez agrees. With a waitlist of over 400 players, he is particular about the players that he accepts, both in terms of skill and personality off the field. They have to love baseball and work.

“We let them know that they have to be ready to work,” Martinez said. “They have to be willing to sacrifice a teenager’s life to be a part of something better, to help them get to that school and become something great. And we’re going to try and do that for them.”

The baseball-first academy system is only becoming more popular, and many more high school players will likely follow down that path in the future. But that doesn’t mean that traditional high school coaches or programs need to be concerned.

“I think both will continue to do well and the academies are doing a good job,” Olsen said. “They are doing a good job with their players, their players are getting what they need or they wouldn’t be there. So I think both can exist.”

John Russell—who played 10 years in the major leagues before coaching for the Pirates and Orioles from 2003-18 and is now coaching at IMG—has seen both sides of the coin. His son has been playing with the IMG program since his sixth grade year, while he played in a traditional high school program during his own prep days.

“You get kids down here and they are going to get the best baseball facilities,” Russell said. “Some of the best instruction—not that there’s not great instruction all over the country—but it’s all right here. And it continues to grow every year . . . One of the things I tell (our players) is great moments are built through great opportunity.

“And this is a great opportunity.”

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