Creating a Plate Strategy – What You Must Know

By Nate Barnett

It was Hall of Famer, Ted Williams who once said, “A good hitter can hit a pitch that is over the plate three times better than a great hitter with a questionable ball in a tough spot.”  Williams writes in his book, The Science of Hitting, that becoming a highly selective hitter is what made him the career .344 hitter he was.  After finishing reading his book (highly recommended by the way) this principle stood out as one of the more valuable tips given.  While the majority of instructional time at all levels of baseball is spent on mechanics, the strategy a hitter brings to the plate has the potential to transform his performance for the better.  A poor strategy (or worse, no strategy at all) will certainly chip away at a hitter’s success at a rapid rate.  Because of the importance of the plate strategy, it should be a major focus alongside your mechanics training.  The very best hitters at any level will display a combination of solid hitting mechanics and command of his mental game.

Plate strategy is a funny thing.  When I ask many of the older hitters I work with about their strategy at bat, the most common answer I get in return is “to make solid contact”.  I argue that this is not a strategy in itself, but the end result of an at bat.  It’s the strategy itself that will increase the odds of making solid contact.  Because of the commonality of the no strategy strategy, hitters constantly under achieve.

Before we move further, let’s create a working definition of what I mean by plate strategy.  Plate strategy can be defined as the plan a hitter brings to the plate that is built around his particular strengths combined with his understanding of the pitchers tendencies in each count.  Using this definition we can press forward in creating the first part of the strategy: determining your strength zone.

The process of finding your strength zone will take a little time, and can be discovered over a series of practices if attention is paid to determining a few things.  Use the following steps to find your strength zone.

1.   Take six baseballs (Williams prefers seven, though six fit on home plate, so I use six) and place them in a line so they cover the entire front edge of the plate nearest the pitcher.

2.   We will name the balls numerically.  The ball nearest you as a hitter is the #1 ball.  The ball furthest from you on the outside corner is the #6 ball.

3.   When you are in batting practice, or even in a game scenario, learn to identify what pitch locations you handle best.  For most every hitter fastballs are easier to hit than curveballs, so let’s just determine the locations based on fastballs only.  You’ll want to establish a range of pitches that you can hit particularly well.  This will become your comfort zone.  For example, when I played, I could handle the #2-#4 balls extremely well.   I would then adopt these three balls as my range of comfort.

4.   Once you have confidence that you can identify your range (#2-#4 or #3-#6 or whatever) you will then spend the most amount of time in practice working on the pitches in your comfort zone.  When you have identified your range, #2-#5 balls or #3-#6 balls, or whatever it may be, it’s again important to focus your work in this range.  If you’re working of the tee, set it up in your range.  If you’re working soft toss, work on pitches in this range.  It should also be mentioned that a #3 ball up in the strike zone might not be hit as well as a #3 ball lower in the zone.  Once you are comfortable with your zone you can always refine it to be more specific.

5.   Now that you understand which range of pitches you hit well and which you don’t, it’s time to develop an understanding of the dynamics of each count.  This step requires a lot of discipline.  For that reason, it will take a significant amount of time and patience to develop to the point of consistency.  What you’ll want to work towards is discipline and confidence to only swing at the pitches in your zone when you are ahead in the count.  The counts of 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, and 3-1 are green light counts.  This means that you’ll be patient enough to only swing at fastballs in your comfort zone during these counts.  Once you have trained your eye long enough to recognize pitches that are thrown into your zone, you can begin to maximize your at bats.  Because of this your batting average will soar because you’re only offering at pitches you know you can handle.

I should pause here and elaborate on a couple crucial points from above.  I had mentioned that most of your practice time will be spent working on pitches you’re already good at.  Some have questioned this saying that it should be your weaknesses that deserve the most attention.  The reason I disagree with this is because wherever the focus is in practice, it doesn’t change the fact that the pitches good hitters want to swing at are those they can handle best.  Therefore, if a hitter is disciplined enough, he stands a much better chance if he hits pitches he’s comfortable with.  It is also safe to say that in any given at bat (Little League through high school) a hitter will get a minimum of two good pitches to hit.  (Obviously, the higher the level of baseball, the fewer good pitches a hitter will see.)  Let’s say there is a 75% chance of getting at least two good pitches to hit per at bat, and there is an 80% chance that a good swing will be put on those pitches.  With those percentages in mind, it’s reasonable to make the statement that you should spend most of your practice time working on improving your contact percentage with pitches in your zone.  Spend the majority of practice developing strength in your zone, and a minority of time working on reducing the areas on the plate that you are not good at.  The only exception to this would be if your zone is only two ball widths wide.  Then you should work towards expanding your zone.

Secondly, the remainder of counts outside of those mentioned above (0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1) are important to discuss as well.  When you find yourself in a count in which you’re even or behind in the count, you’ll have to expand your zone.  For example, my zone of #2-#4 would expand to #1-#5.  I would leave the #6 ball alone until I had two strikes because it was my weakest pitch.  With less than two strikes, but not in a favorable count (0-1, and 1-1), I would also open up the possibility that I would have to swing at an off speed pitch.

There are so many advantages in developing the above philosophy.  Additionally, the higher level of baseball played, the more refined the strategy must become.  Good pitchers can control a game if hitters will swing at pitches that are marginal or even out of the zone.  Once a pitcher slips behind in a count his strategy must change; he must come into the strike zone a bit more.  He must now throw more fastballs.  The job you are challenged with is to make pitchers continuously modify their strategy.  When you force a change, it creates some level of strain in the mind of the pitcher.  Once you have done this, your chances of getting a good pitch to hit goes up significantly.

Finally, it’s worth making mention that you will only get to use your hitting mechanics a fraction of the time per game.  But, your mind will be running all the time.  Those athletes who fully understand and implement mental strategies into their game will be the ones who continue on and play.  Looking back at the athletes I played with in the minor leagues, the ones who went on to play MLB were the ones who had control of both mechanics and the mental game. Take the time to develop a plate strategy, and you’ll find your at bats significantly improving in this great sport of baseball.

Nate has worked with athletes for nearly 20 years. His playing career was successful and resulted in being inducted into George Fox University Baseball Hall of Fame.  Once finishing college, Nate signed a professional contract with the Seattle Mariners. You can find more instructional articles and videos at www.hittingexcellence.com

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