One of the biggest indicators of success for hitters is how well they control the strike zone. You can measure chase rates, heat maps, and many other ways to know where hitters swing and miss and where they hit the ball hard. It’s no surprise that you will hit the ball hardest when you swing at pitches in your favorite spots. And the opposite is also true. You swing and miss more often when you swing at pitches outside the strike zone. This is not new or breaking news!
But it’s not that hitters don’t know that they are supposed to swing at pitches in their specific hot zones and take chase pitches, it’s that it’s really hard to do that on a consistent basis!
This lesson is about a simple concept that will help you understand how to lay off pitches you don’t really want to be swinging at when you’re at the plate.
First a few thoughts on why hitters chase pitches they can’t hit. And just to be clear, I’m defining “chase” to mean that you swing and miss at a pitch outside the strike zone.
The most common reason that a hitter chases a pitch is that he’s fooled by the pitch. Remember, the other team is trying to win, too! Pitchers throw sliders that start in the middle of the plate and break in the opposite batter’s box. They throw split-fingered fastballs with so much vertical break that they bounce in front of the plate. And hitters swing at them because they look like they are going to be strikes or they can even look like straight fastballs out of the pitcher’s hand.
But I’ve talked to lots of professional hitters who are asking for help striking out less and it’s becoming more common that they do see the ball well out of the pitcher’s hand and they do recognize the spin or the location of the pitch, but they try to do too much with the pitch and end up swinging at it, even though they know it isn’t a pitch they can really do damage on.
If you’re recognizing the pitch, but swinging at it anyway, then you’re pressing for some reason. But it’s not always because you haven’t gotten a hit for a while.
Sometimes, it’s trying to do too much in a key situation. For example, trying to get a guy in from third base with less than two outs. It seems like it should be so easy. Just put the bat on the ball and get it in the air to the outfield and the runner tags and scores. Or if the infield is back, just put the ball in play almost anywhere and you have helped your team score. But you still have to be selective at the plate and wait for a pitch you can do something with.
And that’s the problem. For whatever reason, plate discipline breaks down, your plan and your approach and your decision-making break down because you want so badly to do your job.
So here’s a simple way to fix that.
This lesson started with a big league outfielder I worked with who had made the All-Star team the year before and had signed a multi-year contract extension. You’d think a player like that would relax and play better, because he knows his future is set, but I see lots of big leaguers who sign big contracts and then feel like they have to live up to them.
So this hitter was chasing lots of pitches, was striking out more than normal, and his production was plummeting. He asked me what he could do to reduce his strikeouts and that brought the conversation to how poorly he was controlling the strike zone. But as I’ve explained, he knew he was chasing pitches, he knew his plate discipline was terrible, he just didn’t know what to do about it.
I decided to take the conversation in another direction. I asked him to tell me his favorite restaurant. He said it was The Cheesecake Factory. I asked what he normally orders there and without hesitating, he said the spicy chipotle chicken pasta. And then I asked what kind of food he didn’t like, what would he never order there? He had a harder time with that one, but he settled on tuna salad. He played along, but I could tell he didn’t know where I was going with this. I asked what he would do if he ordered chipotle chicken pasta and the server brought tuna salad to the table instead? He made a horrible face and said he would tell the server that he or she had gotten the wrong order and send it back.
“Well, every time you swing at a slider in the dirt, you’re basically telling the pitcher, I’ll eat anything you put in front of me,” I explained. “Those fastballs middle/in that you crush, those are your chipotle chicken pasta. The pitches out of the zone are food you don’t like and didn’t order!” His eyes lit up right away.
So we started measuring plate discipline in this simple and personal way. He started rating himself on a scale of 1-10 on how often he swung at chipotle chicken pasta. The first day he did this, he hit a two-run homer and a game-winning double. He came in the clubhouse beaming! Over the next month, he went on a big tear and his ratings were consistently high and his chase rates and strikeouts went down.
Here are the keys to thinking about this for yourself:
- Think about your favorite foods and something you’d never order.
- Imagine that your red zone, the place you consistently hit the ball hardest, is your favorite food.
- Anything else outside that zone is food you would send back. If you swing at pitches outside your zone, you’re basically deciding to eat food you don’t want instead of waiting for the dish you ordered.
- You rate your performance based on how well you swung at your pitch, which in the analogy is your favorite food. Use a scale of 1-10, with 10 being best, but 7-9 range being A-quality work.
It’s a simple idea, but an easy analogy to make and it’s yours. You decide what your favorite food is. You decide what you don’t like and wouldn’t eat. Just like you decide what to swing at and what you’re looking for at the plate. When you simplify your approach to this and you understand what you’re doing when you chase pitches, it can make a big difference in your performance. Sometimes we don’t have to know the reason why we are pressing at the plate. If we can just make a change in what we want, we can change our actions and improve performance.
Optimize Mind Performance is an app that links athletes with some of the most renowned mental skills coaches from around the world through the content they create. The materials available in the app cover all the foundations of sports psychology and sports-specific mental skills. Geoff Miller has spent the better part of two decades working in Major League Baseball for multiple organizations, and is creating an ongoing series of mental skills training and commentary meant to reach a wide range of ballplayers at all levels. For more information, visit www.optimizemindperformance.com.