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

Advertisements

Read the May issue of OnDeck!

May’s editions of our popular OnDeck Newsletter are chock-full of great information. Our soccer issue features an article by Dave Simeone and the baseball edition is highlighted by some great pointers from Nate Barnett. Check them out for these great write-ups and much more!

Two Tips to Improve Offensive Consistency

By Nate Barnett

When I work with new athletes I always start by watching their lower body movements, specifically their load, stride, and weight transfer. I totally ignore the upper half (shoulders, hand positioning, extension, etc.) until I’m pleased with how the lower body is working.

Why?

Because there are so many upper body mechanical flaw origins wrapped up in the lower half. Let me talk about a couple lower-half areas you may want to check this spring.

Stance width: I don’t care how an athlete stands as long as he is comfortable, and as long as the stance it isn’t interfering with a later hitting mechanics standard. I will encourage simple semi-wide stances over a very narrow stance. How come? Because in general less movement a hitter must make over and over again will produce the most consistency time and time again. Remember, we want an easy to duplicate movement. An open stance with a massive stride is not easily duplicated each swing.

Load/Stride Pacing: I have been emphasizing the pace of movement a lot more this year than in years past. Here is a general rule I tell hitters: two-thirds of total movement of the swing action should be spent from first movement until the front foot hits the ground. One-third of the movement then is wrapped up in the trigger, rotation, and finish of the swing. More often than not, my athletes move too quickly through the first stage of the swing – the load to landing phase.

The reason for the timing emphasis is that more balance issues (weight up front, hips sliding forward, etc) occur when hitters rush through the early stages of the swing. Having kids take their time on their swing prep will greatly reduce their inconsistency at the plate. Also, when kids aren’t feeling good about their swing, they will move faster and thus increasing the likelihood of mistakes.

In summary, position your athletes in a stance preferably that reduces excessive stride length and work on slowing down the pre-trigger movement. Slower movements are more easily duplicated and promote better balance.

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

Slump Busting 101: Hitting Mechanics

By Nate Barnett of The Pitching Academy

The word “slump” is taboo in baseball.  Nobody likes that word, and players try their hardest to avoid speaking it.  Ever.  But, slumps are a part of the game of baseball.  You can’t slump-proof your swing, and you can never predict when one will occur.   A couple years ago, Miguel Olivo summed up what those who have slipped into the depths of a hitting funk go through.  He said, “When you’re hitting, you just go play. But when you struggle, that’s when you start wondering. You go to the batting cage all the time. You’re like, ‘My feet … my hands … they’re going to throw me this pitch,’ then you’re caught in the middle.”  The good news here is that hitters can implement a few strategies both physically and mentally to help reduce the duration and frequency of a downturn in their offensive play.  Keep this essay handy; there will be a time it will serve as a much needed blueprint to beat a slump.  Now, let’s dive in and uncover the mechanical strategies that make up Slump Busting 101.

Most hitters try to solve a slump by messing with their mechanics.  Unfortunately, this type of tinkering rarely solves the problem. Guys will often adjust their stance, stride, etc. without understanding fully the reason for doing so, let alone what is causing their offensive troubles in the first place.  To discourage the random mechanics tinkering without proper fundamental knowledge of hitting mechanics, think of it this way.  I’m not a auto mechanic by any stretch of the imagination.  I know how to open the hood of my car, find many off the major parts inside, though if something stops working, I lack the knowledge and ability to fix the problem.  This is why I pay a mechanic to diagnose and solve the problem.  It wouldn’t make a lot of sense for me to start unplugging things, or taking apart pieces of the engine and replacing them unless I had reason to believe the given part was responsible for the mechanical issue at hand.  Likewise, it doesn’t make sense for a hitter to change a portion of his swing mechanics without having solid evidence that the change will improve the problem.  There are a few things one can do for the physical part of hitting to quicken the recovery out of a slump.  Hitters should be encouraged to consider the following modifications to swing approach:  remove the stride, reduce their swing speed in practice, and work on hitting pitches to the opposite field.  Below I’ll explain my reasoning behind these three methods and why hitters who employ these strategies bust out of slumps at a much quicker rate than those who do not take these suggestions.

Because most mechanical issues for youth hitters stem from poor mechanics in the lower half of the body, eliminating the stride temporarily is a step (pardon the pun) in the right direction.  While I think that a stride is a great way for hitters create some timing during an at bat, it comes with some challenges.  Often during a slump a hitter’s timing is off.  Because of this, excess movement in a swing doesn’t help the situation, it tends to hurt it.  By eliminating the stride for a while, it allows the hitters to reduce the amount of moving parts in his swing.  In short, it simplifies things.  Once confidence has been regained, I would then bring back the stride.  The only caution to this would be to make sure the hitter retains some rhythm in his pre-pitch routine.  This will help him relax as well as maintain better timing with the pitcher.

The second modification necessary for slumping hitters is to cut down the speed of each swing in batting practice.  The reason for this change is so hitters (once they understand mechanics) can identify the areas that need attention.  More often than not guys who are having a tough time at the plate will press a little in batting practice and try to muscle up everything.  This tensity in the body does not allow the hitter to relax and let his muscle memory guide his swing.  There is nothing wrong with swinging at 75% capacity.  Many times, reducing the swing velocity has a calming effect on hitters which promotes relaxation of his muscles at the plate.

Along the lines of staying relaxed and not trying to do too much at the plate, working on hitting the ball to the opposite field takes much of the pressure off of a hitter.  Since most hitters like pulling the baseball, the more they struggle at the plate, the more many try to pull the baseball.  The thinking is that if they can just hit a few balls deep into the pull-side gap, or out of the park, they will snap out of the funk.  This thinking is backwards.  There is nothing wrong with pulling the ball, but there is everything wrong with pulling the ball when you have a tight, non-relaxed swing.  More often than not, the results will be a tense swing that produces top spin hits that hook badly and don’t carry into the gap.  Or, if hitters are really struggling and trying to pull the ball all the time, the results will often be continuous weak pop-ups to the opposite field side.  Focusing on hitting the ball the other way takes the pressure off of the hitters to force a slump to end.  It allows for the hitter to see the pitch deeper in the strike zone and work on keeping the hands moving through the strike zone.  Combining this step with a reduced swing speed, greatly hastens the pace of recovery out of a slump.

The hitting mechanics portion of a slump is only half of the battle.  Solving the second guessing and doubt that goes on in the brain of slumping hitters is the second half of the anti-slump equation.  That portion is the topic of another Slump Busting 101 article.  Work on the three mechanics-related fixes discussed in this article and an offensive rebound is likely to be just around the corner.

Nate Barnett is a hitting, pitching, and mental skills coach residing in the Puget Sound area in Washington State. He played in the Seattle Mariners organization and is co-owner of the The Pitching Academy.

Don’t Be a Slave to Stats!

By Nate Barnett of the Pitching Academy

Baseball is possibly the most statistical game on the planet. Everything a player does is tracked and evaluated based upon some series of stats. While extremely helpful in many scenarios, statistics have a way of eating away at the minds of many athletes if not understood properly. When the swing is feeling good, stats are the hitter’s best friend; there’s no better feeling than going 4-4 at the plate with a couple doubles. On the flip side, there is nothing worse than going 0-4 with two strikeouts. Throw in the additional dynamics of youth insecurities, coach pressures, playing time, etc. and you have a recipe for a mental meltdown in any given game. My proposal is that there is another way to evaluate the offensive play that is not based on the traditional hits to at bats ratio. Instead of placing value on the number of hits each game (results thinking), I argue a hitter can do more for the improvement of his game and mental stability by evaluating the choices made (process thinking) during each game.

First, let me lay out why results thinking can be inaccurate in measuring offensive success. In any given game there are two things that are controlled by a hitter: the mechanics of a swing, and the thoughts and choices of the mind. That being said, the hitter has no control over the defense running down a ball in the gap for a long out. Additionally, he has no control over the pitcher’s ability to hit his spots and change speeds. Because of these couple inconsistencies, it makes little sense to place high value in the number of hits each game. Balls hit hard would be a better way to measure success, however, this become subjective. I remember playing a couple games where I crushed the ball four times. Two of the balls were caught at the wall, and the other two the right-fielder didn’t have to move but a few steps to pull down my line drives. In the books I went 0-4. If number of hits in a game is where I placed all my value, I could become frustrated real quickly. Frustration creates tense muscles, and tense muscles produce poor un-relaxed swings.

There is a better way; a method of evaluation which is far more accurate in determining things that are important to the improvement of the hitter. I’m referring to the choices made each at bat. I’ve written an article on how to develop a plate strategy that breaks down how each hitter can determine what I call, a hot zone. I suggest reading this article before proceeding. If you’re short on time, I’ve provided the condensed version in the remainder of this paragraph. This is the zone that spans a range over the plate where a hitter has the highest percentage of success if he swings at pitches in that zone. Each hitter will have his own hot zone, and can only be defined by becoming aware of what locations he tends to hit better than others. To determine this, place six baseballs across the front edge of home plate. The ball that is the closest to the hitter we will call the #1 ball. The baseball furthest from the hitter is the #6 ball. Next it’s important to evaluate which three or four pitch range tends to produce the most balls hit hard. For example, I had the most success when I swung at balls in the #2-#4 range. Sometimes #5 balls I would hit hard of they were up on the zone. Most youth hitters will find that the #3-#5 ball range suits them best. In the following paragraph we’ll use this model hitter who has a hot zone of #3-#5 that he is most comfortable with.

In this new method of evaluating the performances in each game, I want to walk you through the following hypothetical at bat in which we will keep track of the pitches swung at, and pitches not swung at. Each correct choice in every at bat we will assign a point to, and each incorrect choice we’ll take a point away. The first pitch comes over in the strike zone and is a #3 ball. Our hitter swings at it and fouls the ball off. One point is awarded for making the correct choice and swinging at a pitch in his hot zone. The next pitch comes across and is a #5 ball, but is a little high and out of the strike zone. The hitter lays off this pitch and now is awarded with another point for making the correct choice again for not swinging at a ball out of his hot zone. The 1-1 pitch is thrown over the inside corner, a #1 ball, and our hitter swings and hits a blooper to shallow right field and gets a hit. We remove a point for swinging at a pitch out of the hot zone. The at bat ends with two points being awarded in three attempts. For youth hitters, a 67% success rate on the choices made up at bat should be the standard of a successful at bat, regardless if he reaches first base or not.

I need to add a couple more points of clarification on this system of evaluating success. Any time a hitter is ahead in the count, that is, 0-0 (often a good pitch to hit), 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 then pitches only in the hot zone should be offered at. Once a hitter is even in the count or behind in a count, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, 3-2 he must expand his zone. This should be done gradually on a 1-1 count to instead of a #3-#5 range to a #2-#5 range, or whichever direction on the plate is most comfortable to expand to for the hitter. Then, with two strikes, full plate coverage (balls #1-#6) must be taken into account.

In summary of this philosophy then, balls swung at in the hot zone (regardless if they are hit or not) count as a point. Balls swung at that are outside of the hot zone (depending on the count) result in a loss of a point. Balls let go that are outside of the hot zone result in adding one point. Balls let go that are in the hot zone result in a loss of a point.

The reason this philosophy improves a hitter is twofold. First, it keeps track of the important part of each at bat, pitch selection. Ted Williams once said, “A good hitter can hit a pitch in a good spot three times better than a great hitter can hit a ball in a questionable spot.” Likewise, Branch Rickey was quoted in saying, “The greatest single difference between a Major League and minor-league batsman is his judgment of the strike zone. He knows better whether to swing or take a pitch.” Therefore, it’s important to place high value on pitch selection, for without this, hitters are doomed to increased failure the better pitchers get.

Secondly, this philosophy is healthy for the brain. In a game of constant failure, increasing the success rate will only improve confidence and relaxation at the plate. The byproduct of this then is an increased amount of actual hits. It’s a well known fact that hitter must be relaxed and free of over-thinking to have success. The philosophy in this essay does just that; it allows your mind and body relax and concentrate on hitting the right pitch at the right time.

Implementing this philosophy takes practice, mostly the adjustment in the brain that an 0-4 day in the books can still be a successful day at bat. This mental change does not come easily, it take time and practice. Give it the time and attention it deserves and practice it diligently.

Nate Barnett is a hitting, pitching, and mental skills coach residing in the Puget Sound area in Washington State. He played in the Seattle Mariners organization and is co-owner of the The Pitching Academy.

Read the October 2013 OnDeck Newsletters

With articles by Tony Earp, Steve Henson, Nate Barnett and more, you’ll want to check out both this month’s soccer edition and baseball edition of our OnDeck Newsletter.