In the first installment of our series highlighting Team Axe partners, we caught up with Matt Niemerski, General Manager of 5 Star National-Atlantic, to get his thoughts on everything from the latest trends in travel ball to the ways in which his organization uses Axe Bats in player development.
Matt talked to us from his home in Takoma Park, Maryland. A former catcher at the University of Connecticut, he's also a partner in Diamond Edge Performance, a data-driven training center near Baltimore.
Q: First of all, can you tell us a little about 5 Star Atlantic?
A: Sure, we're a part of 5 Star National, which is headquartered in Warner Robins, Georgia. It's a true national organization with teams in Florida, the Carolinas, Texas, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, the Midwest, the West Coast, even some players from Puerto Rico. Overall, 5 Star has had more than 4,200 players get college scholarships at all levels and 143 players drafted. Coming out of last year, we also had the most Perfect Game championships of any organization in the country.
Q: And what's your role?
A: I'm the General Manager of 5 Star National-Atlantic, so I manage the area from Fayetteville, North Carolina, up to Massachusetts. We pull players from 12 different states for our elite high-school teams.
Q: What makes 5 Star different than other travel baseball organizations?
A: There are a couple things. One is that we're not in silos. A lot of travel-ball players are just on their team. We're truly one giant organization, so players and coaches interact a lot with each other. Everybody is part of what we call the "5 Star Mafia." When players come here, they tap into a true national network of coaches, scouts, pro players -- people they can draw on and connect with to help them get where they want to go and to reach their potential.
Second, our player development culture. Everything we do, we're competing at a high level. Players are going to bring that out in each other. We want to make sure you're developing not just an elite skill set, but an elite mentality and an elite approach to your work and training.
And third, we bring a lot of resources to our players. Whether that's technology or coaching, we're going to bring all the tools you possibly need and teach you how to use them to get better. But it's ultimately up to you to do the work.
Q: How are you doing with the coronavirus shutdown? Has it changed the way you operate?
A: In some ways, it has been good for us because it has forced us to continue investing in the technology and infrastructure that allows us to stay in touch with players who are in different parts of the country. We have high-school players in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania -- even some in Ohio and Michigan -- so the remote work reinforces that this is how we need to be doing things anyway to stay in touch throughout the year.
Q: How do you use data and analytics in player development?
A: Generally, everything we do is tracked, whether that's in the weight room or swinging a bat or throwing a pitch. We try to give players the tools they need to track things, so that when they're training at home they can send us the data files that we can analyze. For every player, we have a development curve that we're constantly looking at to make sure it's going in the right direction.
That said, you can collect all the data you want -- and it's easier than ever to do with all the tools available -- but if you don't know how to analyze it, or if you don't know how to change the trajectory of that data to get the desired result, you're not really doing player development.
So there's an important integration of many different types of disciplines that are coming into player development. It's not as simple as throwing on a bat sensor or taking a reading. It's how you evaluate the information and use it to get a positive result on game day.
Q: Is player development becoming more important in travel ball?
A: It's one of the major trends in travel ball. Parents are starting to understand it, too -- that it's not just about putting on some expensive laundry and engaging in baseball tourism. You've got to develop as a player and as a person. We're different that way. We're a blue-collar organization. We have a lunch-pail attitude when it comes to player development.
Q: How does competition factor in player development?
A: It's huge. Not just training in an elite way, but testing yourself against the best competition possible at all times. You've got to take out the measuring stick and see where you're at, how you stack up with the best players. And that's something that we provide. You're not going to be able to hit 90 (mph)-plus until you actually face it, and you're going to have to face it over and over again; it's going to take a long time to learn how to hit that. Players aren't built overnight, so the opportunity to constantly measure yourself is really important in developing your skills and confidence to play at the next level.
Q: How did you get involved with Axe Bat?
A: The technology has been out there for a few years now, and you see more pros using (the bats), so you get curious. And we had some guys using Axe Bats last year -- guys that swore by them -- so we looked into it and decided to become an exclusive partner for both our game bats and training bats.
Q: You have a 15-year-old son who swings Axe Bat. What has been his experience?
A: He loves the technology. He also uses other bats, too, but he'll go back to his Axe Bat whenever he's not feeling right. He swings the Elite One BBCOR with the Pro Handle. I tell anybody, if you want a bat that's going to give you what you need in terms of feedback, and if you can deliver that barrel to the zone effectively and on time, you're going to crush baseballs with it.
Q: How do you use Axe Bat training bats in developing hitters?
A: The Speed Trainers, as well as the Long and Short Trainers, are important components of our training. They're a part of our everyday work with hitters, whether that's off the tee or with swings in the cage or hitting plyo balls. At the end of the day, it's about competing in the strike zone with bat speed and the Axe Bat Speed Trainers with the Driveline programs fit right into that ethos for us.
Q: What do you see the training bats doing for your hitters?
A: You have to be a dangerous hitter anywhere in the zone these days. The idea of managing the zone is about bat speed, number one, but also barrel control. What I love about the Speed Trainers is that they give us that feedback for how we're managing the barrel through the zone.
You can see the progression when you go from the overload (bats) to that underload (bat) and you feel your body cut loose. You might see a kid hitting off a tee and he's been swinging one way with the heavy bat, and all of a sudden (with the underload bat), he's pulling balls directly to his left if he's a right-hander. So he's got to understand how to manage the barrel even with a lighter bat.
Then, we'll use the Long Trainer off a pitching machine cranked up to 85 mph and place those pitches on the inner half of the plate. If you can get that long barrel there and clear that ball out, you're going to be fine as a hitter. So these are just fantastic tools for building a hitter.
Q: Have your players seen performance improvements after switching to Axe Bat?
A: Yes, when we put the bat sensor on and use it with their regular Axe Bat and whatever other bat they're using, they start to see differences. They're on-plane earlier, their hand speed has picked up, they're making consistent barrel contact out in front of the plate. And I think that's important for guys to be able to see the difference between what the Axe Bat helps them do.
Q: You said the Axe Handle helps hitters make contact farther in front of home plate. That's something we also saw in our internal testing. Can you expand on that?
A: We see guys who pick up an Axe Bat and for the first few times they swing it, they're in a different spot. They're out in front quicker and they're ripping the ball. They go, 'Woah, I have to adjust my timing with this thing.' But then you start seeing them consistently hitting the baseball out in front of the plate. They start to pull it more, start to hit the ball harder. They're just barreling balls up and absolutely crushing balls.
Q: In addition to using the latest technology, how is 5 Star Atlantic evolving to meet the needs of today's player?
A: I think we're uniquely situated for where travel ball is going. Players and families want to see more value -- not just showing up and putting on a uniform, but fully integrated player development. And that's what we're doing from the weight room to the batting cage to the pitcher's mound to the field on game day. Players go into travel baseball and showcase baseball to be developed. That's what it's all about. Making players better. And that's what 5 Star does.