Zone Hitting – Working the Pitch Count

Undisciplined hitting has two major pitfalls. First, the batter is not swinging at pitches that are located where he hits most effectively, resulting in weak grounders or fly balls and easy outs. Second, a team of undisciplined hitters will never (and I mean NEVER!) press the opposing pitcher to the point of breakdown. Bottom line is that the pitcher will always maintain control of the ballgame as long as he can count on hitters swinging at his pitch and not theirs.

There are many ways to have a good at bat (let’s call it a QAB or quality at bat) from this point on. QAB’s come from good clean hits. The pitcher throws the all, you hit it hard, it finds a hole and you’re on base. That’s the most obvious QAB. The less obvious ones come from forcing the pitcher to throw you your pitch or taking him deep into the count before getting a walk or making an out. Both should be rewarded by teammates for reasons I will explain later.

Let’s start by defining a QAB. This is a concept you must learn, understand, and apply every at bat from this point on. A quality at bat is any at bat you have that results in either you getting on base via a hit or walk, or you forcing the pitcher to throw more than four pitchers. Why four? Because if I, as a pitcher, can get you out in 4 pitches and I can do it again for each of your teammates, then my pitch count is 12 pitches per inning, 108 for the game. That’s not too bad for a pitcher. Also, it means that you, as a hitter, are only getting 12-16 pitches (if that) per game to hit. Later in the game, you’ll not have seen enough pitches to get your timing down and get comfortable. Have you ever wondered why a pitcher, who is cruising along in a game with no real problems but is going to full count with nearly every batter, suddenly gets rocked even though he is doing well? The batters got comfortable with him. They saw enough pitches to figure out how to hit him effectively. That’s why closers are so effective even if they throw only one type of pitch.

By forcing the pitcher to throw more pitches, you get to see him longer, and see all of his pitches. Also, you wear him down. So instead of 4 pitches, it now takes 7 pitches to get you and the rest of your team out. Assuming no one gets on base, the pitcher ends up throwing 21 pitches per inning or 147 per game. That is a very high pitch count for anyone, especially high school or collegiate pitchers.

Let’s assume that most pitchers have an effectiveness ceiling of 80 pitches. You face a pitcher and get on base in 5 pitches. The next hitter flies out in 6. The number 3 hitter hits a ground ball through in 4 pitches. The cleanup hitter is out in 7. The last batter of the inning fights back from 1-2 only to ground out in 7 pitches. No runs score, but your team has made the pitcher throw 29 pitches in one inning. At that pace, the pitcher should lose his effectiveness in the third inning. If your team continues to wear him down, you will have created a window of opportunity to break the game wide open somewhere in the third or fourth inning.

How do you have a QAB? The answer depends on the situation present when you enter the batters box. For now, let’s discuss your first at bat, no runners on, and no outs. You should have a good idea of where your “happy spot” is in the strike zone. A “happy spot” is your power zone. Normally, it is mid-thigh to belt high on the inner half of the plate. Where ever it is, this is the spot that you want to hit the ball for power and solid contact. When you are at the plate, you are looking for a fastball in that specific location. You will not swing at any pitch outside that zone even if it is a strike. Also, you will not swing at any off speed pitch. You will keep looking for a pitch in this zone until you have one strike on you.

With one strike, the zone you are hitting in expands slightly. Now you are looking fastball (or hanging off-speed) across the heart of the plate. Height-wise look just above knees to hip high. You must make a mental note to stay closed as you expand your zone. The odds of getting pitched outside increase dramatically when you have one or more strikes on you. Also, your mind-set should be to hit the ball up the middle. You should not swing at pitches outside of the zone or at off-speed pitches that are not mistakes. You will hit this zone until you have two strikes.

With two strikes, the zone is wide open, extending at least 2 in. on the corners and a ball width up and down the zone. Make note of what the ump is calling and adjust your zone accordingly. Your swing shortens slightly as you look to put the ball in play or foul it off. You are now looking for the ball away and will keep your front hip closed as you approach the ball. You are looking to hit opposite field as a majority of pitches will be thrown to the outer half of the plate with two strikes. You will react to the inside pitch.

Now with this mind-set, the pitcher must throw a minimum of 3 pitches to get you out or get a walk. So, a minimum of 3 pitches to get you out or 4 to walk you. You have that many pitches to find one that is in your hitting zone to hit for power. Expect to go at least 5 pitches as we can expect the pitcher to waste a pitch or miss the zone. It is very likely one of those five pitches will be the money pitch for you. Be ready. The big difference between amateur and professional hitters is that pros can hit the pitch when they get it a majority of the time.

With runners on, your zone will change depending upon where you want to hit the ball, but for the most part, those three zone situations will suffice. Also, should you face a pitcher who is throwing strikes and a lot of them; you will need to match his aggressiveness. Still looking for your pitch, your zone should expand larger after the 1st strike to incorporate the zone the pitcher is hitting. If he’s not missing much, you have to step it up a notch and match him. Sure, you are not going to drive up the pitch count (unless you hit him a lot and keep him out there) but you will see pitches you can hit so go get them.

Working the count is extremely important when hitting against a pitcher you haven’t seen before. A team effort is required to gain info on what the pitcher has in way of velocity, location, and pitch types. Done properly, batters can swing the advantage to their side of the plate while possibly increasing their batting averages. Will this work every time? Probably not, but it will make you a better hitter and increase the odds of your team winning.

Variations of this approach can be made by moving your initial zone to wherever you want to hit the ball. If I know I can hit the outside pitch away with power, I may want to go after the first fastball I see on the outer half of the plate (very likely the first pitch). It’s up to you. The important part of all of this is to learn discipline at the plate and not go up there hacking at anything that moves. Have a plan and stick to it unless the conditions make you change.

Ultimately, QAB’s will help raise your batting average, RBI count, and on-base percentage. In order to be effective, however, you must learn to recognize pitches as well as developing a short quick stroke to the ball. Putting it all together is what it’s all about!

Anna C. Knight

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