Learning the strike zone isn’t necessarily the most intuitive thing for a young, aspiring baseball or softball player to figure out. Like most of the skills team sports like baseball revolve around, a player’s strike zone can only truly develop over time. They can take steps toward improving their own perception of the strike zone with exercises, drill, and watching the game, but ultimately, the players who end up with rock-solid strike zone perception do so by shaping their plate vision and discipline over multiple seasons. As a coach, it’s your responsibility to help guide your players toward that vision and perspective in front of the plate. Their idea of when to swing the bat starts and ends with you, so here are some things to consider when approaching plate discipline with your players.
The Nature of the Game
It’s important to understand early on that plate discipline and knowledge of the strike zone, much like hitting success in general, comes and goes over the course of any given season. Players may be seeing the ball’s flight out of the pitcher’s hand really well one game, but that can suddenly disappear their very next outing. This is part of what makes the strike zone one of the most challenging skills to hone in all of athletics -- inconsistency plagues even the best players up at bat, such that players either end up constantly adjusting their mechanics in miniscule ways or sticking to the tried-and-true techniques they’ve grown accustomed to and rolling with the punches. The connecting factor between the two is the necessity of coming to terms with this inconsistency as part of the nature of the game, which can be a pretty hard pill to swallow for some players.
Coaching the strike zone in particular is also quite delicate, as coaches should not want to take the aggressiveness away from young hitters. Coming down on a player or scolding them when they swing at pitches that are out of the zone is one way to inch them away from their aggressive tendencies, which can manifest itself as a hitter who hesitates to take the bat off of their shoulder instead. As players improve and mold their skills, pitch selection becomes another big factor in a hitter’s success that has to be introduced and guided via coaching. Developing a hitter’s knack for their own sweet spots and hot zones is a way to lock them in on part of their strike zone, but that can be completely thrown off once pitchers start throwing curveballs and other breaking balls that aim to deceive the hitter’s sense of their strike zone. Getting them used to seeing breaking balls in different areas of the strike zone will help them identify the patterns in the pitches they see, allowing them to grow more disciplined at the plate when identifying a breaking pitch coming in.
Start with the Fundamentals
When it comes down to it, coaching a player’s plate discipline really starts at their mechanics. The development of a good eye when batting comes from doing everything so properly and consistently that the hitter’s perception of their strike zone and effective hitting zone are locked in and can be adjusted mentally depending on the pitcher’s arsenal, the umpire’s zone that day, and more. Firstly, the better a hitter’s mechanics, the more compact their swing will be, and the longer they can wait for the ball to reveal its true location before deciding it’s in the strike zone or worth a swing. Over time, hitters will learn how long it takes them to get the bat out in front and be able to adjust accordingly. This becomes especially useful when learning to hit breaking or off-speed pitches, as the extra time allows for the hitter to let the pitch begin its movement before deciding if, when, and where to swing.
Be sure to address your hitters’ plate routines down to the minutia, working with them to make as many things consistent and technically fluid as possible. This starts with making sure they’re the correct distance (for them) from home plate, and that the distance remains the same throughout games, batting practice, and tee work. Noticing slight changes in distance from home plate is something that is often overlooked, but can be crucial toward developing positive habits and a comfortable stance -- a couple of inches can change a player’s perception and completely turn them around.
Discipline When It Counts
Similarly, avoid allowing players to expand their strike zone during batting practice. Lots of young players feel obliged to swing at every pitch during batting practice or get loose with the strike zone then; it’s vital to continuously tell them during batting practice that they should only swing at strikes, even (or especially) if the pitcher can’t seem to throw strikes. Point out when hitters swing at pitches that aren’t strikes, and then ask them where they thought it was or why they chose to swing. If they already think about BP as a game situation, they may be able to figure out the answers to those questions pretty naturally. Likewise, if the batter takes a ball that is a strike, ask them where they thought it was and why they let it go, informing them that it was a strike. This kind of approach will help ease hitters into tightening their strike zone and build confidence in it until it results in good plate discipline.
Teaching a young player when and when not to swing may be a fairly difficult task. But by working through mistakes and encouraging consistency, it can be realistic to see a tangible difference in their hitting almost immediately.