It's difficult to teach plate discipline to players of all ages. One reason is we want players to be aggressive; from a young age most coaches and parents are telling kids to swing the bat. Umpires in many youth leagues expand the strike zone to try and get kids to swing. We are teaching them from a young age that you better swing at anything close or you'll strike out. In most cases players don't swing because of a fear of getting hit, not because they simply don't want to swing. Spend time with each player at a young age working on the proper way to get out of the way of a pitched ball.
The problem with this "swing at anything close approach" is as a player gets older and pitchers gain better control, this aggressiveness will be used against him as a good pitcher won't throw a strike if a batter is willing to swing at a ball. Ted Williams was once asked by a young ballplayer for some hitting advice, he told the young player that the most important part of hitting is to get a pitch you can do something with. Barry Bonds is a current example of a player that has great plate discipline; he simply doesn't swing at bad pitches. He has a great approach at the plate. The pitcher is going to have to throw him a pitch that Bonds likes or he won't swing. He doesn't give in to a pitcher trying to get him to swing at the pitcher's pitch. What's a pitcher's pitch? That's the pitch the pitcher wants you to swing at and hit because he knows that even if you hit it, it will most likely result in an out.
Plate discipline and having an approach at the plate are essential for development of a hitter. One of the most important lessons you can teach a hitter is that it's okay to strike out. You want a player to be a tough out, but too many young players fear striking out and end up swinging at bad pitches simply because they don't want to strike out. They need to understand that they will have a better chance of success if they go up to the plate with a plan. I heard Joe Morgan explain his approach at the plate and have tried to instill a similar approach with my players. Joe Morgan explained that with 0 strikes, he took 2 inches off of each side of the plate. So instead of the plate being 17 inches wide, he treated the plate as being 13 inches wide. With 1 strike he would use the whole plate and with 2 strikes he would add 2 inches to each side of the plate. I try to emphasize with my players that all strikes are not equal and explain that there is a certain zone that each hitter likes to hit the ball in. With no strikes, I want my hitters to look for a pitch in that zone. We call this his 'hitting zone' and he has to know it well to determine whether to swing or not with a 0 strike count. I equate that to Joe Morgan taking 2 inches off of each side of the plate with no strikes. Below are a couple examples of the strike zone versus the hitting zone with a 0 strike count. The two drills and hitting zone chart listed under 'Related Baseball Drills' below can help you work with players on developing an approach and defining a 'hitting zone' with different counts.
In the images below, notice the hitting zone is smaller than the strike zone for a 0 strike count and expands as the strike counts increases. The 0 strike pitch is the pitch location that the hitter really
likes and can handle. The ability to handle the pitch is important. A hitter may love to hit eye level pitches in batting practice but can't handle them well in the game.
That pitch shouldn't be part of the hitting zone. This 0 strike pitch is the one that the hitter is confident he/she can drive somewhere and may be a little different
from player to player.
After 1 strike the zone expands to the approximate size of the strike zone and after 2 strikes the hitter will be protecting the strike zone plus a little. The opposite can also be true if the hitter gets ahead in the count. 2-0 may shrink the hitting zone even further. 3-0 may result in a very small hitting zone if given the green light.
The main point is a hitter must be aware of the count and have a plan when stepping up to the plate. Having discipline at the plate is difficult and takes a lot of practice but it will increase a hitter's ability to be successful at the plate. Once a hitter has a plan and good plate discipline he can more easily adjust to the strengths of any opposing pitcher as outlined in the strategy section below.
How do you step in the box?
Many players don't get prepared for an at bat until they slip on a helmet. Getting ready to hit must first start during practice and we're not talking about the mechanics of the swing (which will be discussed later), but as a hitter, you must know your strengths and weaknesses.
When you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can incorporate them into your approach at the plate.
This process is not only important during practice but it's essential to recognize during each at bat in order to be successful.
Players should study the opposing pitcher prior to the game, during between inning warm-ups, and while he is pitching to other hitters.
Apply what you observe and develop a plan for this particular pitcher. For instance, perhaps he primarily throws fastballs; while you hit fastballs well, he throws hard and you have difficulty getting around on a hard inside fastball. Knowing this, your plan may be to look for a fastball middle or away, trying to drive it up the middle or take it the other way. If he throws a fastball inside, take the pitch until you have two strikes. By doing this you will swing at fastballs that you know you can handle, and you won't be striding too early because you're worried about getting around on the inside heat. This also has the added bonus of allowing you to adjust to his off-speed pitches.
Don't be afraid of going deep into the count or of striking out. Many hitters swing at pitches they can't handle simply because they don't want to strike out. They don't give runs or hits for not striking out. You need to realize that the best chance for you to be successful is to swing at pitches you can handle. Why hit a weak ground ball back to the pitcher on an inside fastball that you know you can't handle when you have less than 2 strikes?
Great players (notice we didn't say hitters) always know the game situation and what they need to do to help their team in a particular situation. It really comes down to your willingness to sacrifice stats for the team when the situation dictates. This may entail laying down a sacrifice bunt or moving a runner forward by hitting behind him or taking a strike so a baserunner can try to get into scoring position by stealing second.
The game situation may fit with your strategy that you are using against this pitcher or it may dictate that you try something else. Make sure you have taken everything into account when you approach the plate. Each team gets a limited number of outs during a game; don't waste this one.
No matter what the strategy, situation, or the pitcher, always strive to be a tough out. This means you battle when you are at the plate. You don't swing at bad pitches. You foul off tough pitches. To be a tough out, you need to take a different approach when you have two strikes on you. The main thing you want to do is shorten your swing slightly. It doesn't mean that you won't swing hard, but it does mean that your swing is taken down a notch. This allows you to wait a split second longer before committing.