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The 5 Ball Approach
Home plate is 17 inches wide…that is roughly 5 baseballs wide. You can number those balls 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5. We are doing this to represent the 5 different horizontal pitch locations that are on the plate. Picture it like this:
After visually demonstrating these 5 different horizontal pitch locations to your hitters, the instruction is to look for pitches only in the 2, 3, or 4 zones when in advantage or hitter’s counts (0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1, & even 1-1 at times). Meaning that hitters should not be swinging at pitches that are in the 1 zone or in the 5 zone, eliminate those spots entirely.
If you knock off both ball number 1 and ball number 5, you are left with the three balls that make up the middle of the plate:
If hitters are able to utilize the approach properly, they are only going to swing at the horizontal locations of pitches that are in line with ball 2, 3, or 4 (the 3 in the middle of the plate). The pitches that are on the edges are left alone until we get to two strikes.
If hitters are locked in on swinging at these 3 middle zone locations (2, 3 & 4) then they are going to be much less likely to swing at pitches that are off of the plate, whether they are inside or outside. By focusing on those 3 balls right down the middle, pitches that are close, yet off of the corners will appear miles away (6″+) from our point of focus. Very often, those pitches that look like they are going to be in line with ball 1 or with ball 5, are pitches that end up off of the plate when they pass through the hitting zone.
When hitters work this approach early in counts it really helps them lock in on great pitches to hit. If they take some strikes that are 5’s or 1’s that is OK. We are trying to reinforce that we are giving the pitchers the corners early in counts. We want to swing only at the pitches that have a high percentage of being hard hit balls.
The pitches located in that 1 or 5 horizontal zone are most often pitcher’s pitches, and will come with very slim odds of being hard hit. If hitters do swing at those pitcher’s pitches early in counts then they are very likely to get themselves out and help the opposing pitcher have more efficient innings.
Remember, by taking the balls on the corners (low % hard hit) we are less likely to swing at pitches off of the plate, thus driving up a pitcher’s overall pitch count.
By thinking from the numbers side of this approach, pitchers generally only hit their targeted corners (zones 1 & 5) just shy of 10% of the time.
Even if it was a 10% chance for both corners, that means that 80% of the time we will either see a pitch in the heart of the plate (zones 2, 3 & 4), or we will see 4 balls. If the pitcher does happen to hit the corner twice in an at bat, the odds show that it is highly unlikely to happen again.
By making zones 2, 3, and 4 our main focus, it also removes the element of “surprise” that many hitters face when they see a pitch directly down the middle.
If they are expecting to see it down the middle, this cognitive trigger will nearly pull itself when the time comes.
Now, there is also an element of individual hitters handling certain pitch locations better than others. Some guys are great pull hitters and prefer the ball in, while other love the ball away.
You can still teach this approach but don’t be afraid to do so by varying the horizontal locations that each player is looking for.
If you have a big power guy the hammers the ball on the inner half then he can lock in on the horizontal locations of balls 1, 2, & 3 (assuming right handed hitter).
Likewise, if there is a guy that is great at driving the ball the other way and he loves the ball on the outer half he might want to vary his hot zones as well. This type of hitter might choose to lock in on balls in horizontal zones 3, 4, & 5 (assuming right handed hitter).
The caution with these approach edits is there is a greater possibility of swinging at those pitcher’s pitches early in counts. This happens because, as we reviewed earlier, those balls in the 1 or 5 zone can very easily end up off of the plate.
What you are really doing with this demonstration is starting to make players aware of approach at the plate, and actually understanding how to key in on a zone. If nothing else it really helps develop a set of agreed upon language for teammates and coaches to communicate with as it relates to pitch location and approach.
The visual for young hitters of looking for pitches in a specific zone creates a heightened sense of awareness when they get into the batters box.
It is also important to touch on the idea that hitters should be looking for specific pitch types also (fastball, curveball, change-ups etc…). Especially before the hitter gets any strikes against them. With zero strikes, the overwhelming likelihood is that they will see a fastball (age and ability level obviously impact this a lot). At the highest level, guys can throw any pitch in any count, but in youth baseball, high-school, and even most college ball, sitting fastball is going to be the most likely correct guess.
The key is to look for the pitch type that you are actually going to get. If you are a great fastball hitter you should play to your strengths and look fastball in advantage counts. However, as you go up to higher and higher levels of play, it is important to start to look for what you are going to get rather than what you want to get (that is why keeping an opposing pitcher’s tendency chart can help out a great deal).
Now, it is also important to make sure that hitters know they have to change their approach once they get to 2 strikes. When there is 2 strikes on a hitter they must expand their zone a little bit more and protect against those pitches that are in line with the 1 and the 5, and maybe even pitches that are off of the plate a bit (again this depends to an extent on the age/level of play).
At the lower levels, teaching plate discipline is important, but umpires are going to have a much bigger zone and you would much prefer that hitters are aggressive rather than passive. As players start to play at higher and higher levels, working with them to consciously develop better and better plate discipline through a measured approach is vital to their success.
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