Baseball coaches will all admit that the physical proficiency in hitting is keyed on meeting the ball squarely with good bat speed. They would further admit that this is a very difficult skill to master, and this is the reason why all coaches are interested in finding ways to enable their hitters to perform this feat with some degree of regular success. This is where the subject of bat discipline comes into play. This is one of those mental aspects of hitting that most coaches spend very little time on, but bat discipline may play one of the largest roles in bat productivity.
Bat discipline boils down to just one mental decision: yes, I will swing at this pitch; or no, I will not swing at this pitch. Doesn't it sound simple? Yes or no? Swing or don't swing? It may sound simple but all baseball coaches know how difficult this is due to the fact that this decision must be made while a baseball is coming into the plate area at a tremendous rate of speed, and in many cases with movement in the vertical and horizontal plane.
Good bat discipline can help a poor fundamental hitter more than it can help a good fundamental hitter. There are times that the good hitter can make contact off a pitcher's great pitch whereby the poor hitter could not have a high degree of success on the same pitch. The poor hitter is not able to have this success due to the fact that his hitting mechanics are not as finely structured as the good hitter. This is not to say that a good hitter can not become a better hitter with good bat discipline. It means merely that bat discipline is the crutch that the poor hitter needs in order to achieve some success while the good hitter can use it to achieve greater success.
When teaching bat discipline, the coach needs to stress the importance of maintaining aggressiveness at the plate. If a team continually hears from the coach that they are swinging at too many bad pitches, it could lead to their losing their aggressiveness as they start taking too many good pitches. The bat discipline philosophy has to center around the mental to physical concept of "yes, yes, yes, no" or "yes, yes, yes, yes". The former being when the hitter takes the pitch, and the latter being when the hitter swings at the pitch. A hitter must establish the fact that he will be swinging at the pitch, and then make the adjustment to hold back on the swing at the last possible instance. Once a hitter starts saying to himself that he would like to see where the pitch is before swinging, he will lose the ability to "pull the trigger". When a hitter loses his aggressiveness he hinders his ability to establish himself both mentally and physically as a good hitter.
For purposes of clarification and understanding, let's break bat discipline down to its simplest form. Your team is playing in a high school baseball game and the pitcher your team is facing is an average high school pitcher. Being that he is an average high school pitcher, he is able to get the ball over the plate with some degree of frequency and has a couple of different pitches that he can throw. If he throws seven pitches to a batter, he probably will be able to throw two pitches that would have the marks of a perfect pitch for him. This means that the velocity, movement and location were as good as he can achieve on a pitch. Two of the seven pitches thrown would be the type that the pitcher wishes he could retrieve before it reaches the batter. This is due to the fact that either the velocity, movement or location of the pitch is poor. The other three pitches from the average high school pitcher would be average pitches. This means that the velocity, movement and location are not perfect for him, but at the same time it is not a poor type of pitch. Thus, this pitcher is capable of throwing two perfect pitches, two poor pitches, and three average pitches in these seven deliveries to the plate.
If the pitcher throwing against your team is an above average high school pitcher, his pitch breakdown might be: three perfect pitches; three average pitches; and one poor pitch. The poor high school pitcher might have a pitch breakdown of: one perfect pitch; three average pitches; and three poor pitches.
If a hitter could know when the pitcher was going to throw his perfect pitch, his average pitch, or his poor pitch, hitting would be a lot simpler than it is. The batter would take all the pitcher's perfect pitches (except with two strikes), and swing at all his poor pitches that are in the strike zone. Of course, this is not the case since the batter never knows what type of pitch he will receive until he reads the ball as it leaves the pitcher's hand.
The degree of success a hitter would have on this average high school pitcher will depend on how many of his poor pitches he swings at and how many of his perfect pitches he takes. As mentioned previously, the good hitters on a team might have some degree of success with the pitcher's perfect pitches, but the poor hitter will get very little accomplished. However, if the good hitter would wait for the average or poor pitch, his degree of success as a hitter should rise. The poor hitter might be able to remain in the starting lineup with some degree of success if he can discipline himself to swing at just poor or average pitches. He can not afford to swing at a pitcher's perfect pitch unless he has two strikes on him.
The basic premise in bat discipline lies in the fact that there are very few pitchers in high school or college who are going to consistently throw perfect pitches. Even the best pitchers are going to make a mistake and that is when the hitter needs to respond by "pulling the trigger".
How does a coach teach bat discipline? Let's go back to the average high school pitcher to analyze what hitters need to do mentally and physically to respond to the pitched ball in a positive manner. By using the following situation as an example, the coach might be able to get across the idea to his club that bat discipline is a vital ingredient in becoming a good hitter.
The first hitter to the plate receives one of the pitcher's great pitches on the first pitch, and he swings at the ball. He subsequently hits a weak ground ball back to the pitcher for the first out of the inning. The reason that this was a great pitch for the pitcher was that he threw a good fast ball on the outside black of the plate. Now what did this batter just do? He swung at the first pitch merely because it looked like a strike even though it was a difficult pitch for him to hit well. If he would have taken that first pitch, the worst that he could be would be facing an 0-1 count. Let's say that the batter had good bat discipline and he took that perfect pitch for a strike. If we go strictly by percentages, this means that the average pitcher now has one great pitch left, three average pitches left, and two poor pitches left of the seven pitches he would throw. Thus, the chances of him throwing another perfect pitch are somewhat minimized. On the next pitch, the pitcher throws another perfect pitch (curve ball on the knees for a strike). The batter swings at this pitch and pops the ball up in the infield for an easy out. If he had taken this pitch for a strike, he would now have a 0-2 count on him. However, he would still have the opportunity to swing at another pitch. Since this average pitcher has already thrown two great pitches, his chances of throwing another great pitch would be further minimized. With two strikes the batter must now concentrate on making some contact at the plate and can not be concerned about the type of pitch that might be thrown, other than the fact that he must protect the plate. Hopefully, the pitcher does not throw another great pitch. If he does, the next batter certainly will have a better chance of seeing some average pitches or poor pitches unless the pitcher is having a great day on the mound.
A hitter who swings at one of a pitcher's great pitches when he (the hitter) is ahead in the count is committing a cardinal hitting sin. If he takes one of the pitcher's poor pitches when ahead in the count, he is committing the same type of hitting sin.
A hitter must be in a position to respond to the challenge that each pitch thrown provides him taking into consideration the - following: (1) the skill level of the pitcher, (2) his hitting skill level; (3) the ball-strike count; (4) the game situation; and (5) the plate umpire.
1. The skill level of the pitcher—The better the pitcher, the more the individual hitter must practice good bat discipline. For example, if a pitcher possesses an excellent slider, a hitter must lay off that pitch with less than two strikes unless the pitcher happens to throw the slider into his hitting zone. One of the reasons a particular pitcher might be having success is that he has the ability to throw his great pitches to areas of the strike zone that make it very difficult for the hitter to make good contact (up and in; low and away). Since the good pitcher will throw less mistake pitches than the average or poor pitcher, the hitter can not afford to take any mistake pitch. He must be thinking "swing, swing, swing, yes", or "swing, swing, swing, no". We have all heard many times hitters come back to the dugout saying that they should have jumped all over a certain pitch. Since a great pitcher will make few mistake pitches, the hitter must be ready to respond when he reads the pitch in his hitting zone. With a poor pitcher on the mound, the number of mistake pitches will increase so the hitter can be very selective. If the pitcher does not possess a "strikeout" pitch, the batter can afford to have two strikes on him. With a great pitcher on the mound, the hitter with two strikes is definitely "in the hole". Thus, the skill level of the pitcher will be a major factor in a hitter's bat discipline.
2. His hitting skill level—Every hitter has certain areas of the strike zone that he likes to have the ball thrown to. At the same time, there are certain areas of the strike zone that a hitter has a tough time making solid contact with the ball. Hitters need to realize that even the great hitters have a difficult time making good contact in certain areas of the strike zone. The reason they are great hitters is that they understand this fact and practice good bat discipline according to where the ball is in relation to their strike zone. Hitters need to also realize that some hitters can make good contact with balls outside the strike zone, while other hitters need to have the pitch in the confines of the strike zone in order to make solid contact. Thus, every hitter is different, and every hitter must fully understand his capabilities and limitations as a hitter. Those hitters who never make adjustments at the plate and have little or no understanding of their hitting zones, will have a very difficult time becoming established hitters. A hitter must read the type of pitch and the location of the pitch before he can swing at the ball. If he is a good fast ball hitter and likes the pitch on the inside part of the plate belt high, when he reads that pitch in that zone he must be ready to "pull the trigger". Hitters can improve their batting average by being selective at the plate, but still maintain their aggressiveness so that when the pitch they want "arrives" the bat "flies".
Many hitters have a very difficult time hitting good breaking pitches. If that is the case, they must discipline themselves to lay off the good breaking pitch unless they have two strikes on them. As a general rule, most pitchers will have a more difficult time throwing breaking pitches for strikes then they will their fast ball and change-up. Once the pitcher gets behind in the count, there is a better chance that the hitter will see more fast balls. Again, each hitter must determine what he is looking for from each pitcher by taking into consideration the location of the pitch in the strike zone and the type of pitch thrown. A hitter should never swing at a change-up with less than two strikes on him unless one of two things are in effect: (1) the hitter is guessing change-up; and (2) the change-up is in his hitting zone. The coach should be in a position to help each hitter evaluate his strength and weaknesses in regard to hitting zones and the type of pitches he should be looking for in certain situations. Guess hitting is highly recommended for most hitters who have good bat discipline when they are ahead in the count.
3. The ball-strike count—One of the major considerations a hitter must take into account in establishing good bat discipline is the ball-strike count. Every hitter would love to be in a position each time at bat to face the pitcher when he (the hitter) is ahead in the count (3-0; 3-1; 2-0; 1-0; 2-1). The pitcher would then have to throw a pitch over the plate, and this pitch would generally be his best control pitch. In most cases, the pitcher's best control pitch is the fast ball. The pitcher who can throw his breaking pitches or change-up over the plate in these ball-strike situations is going to be a very effective pitcher. The average high school or college pitcher is not able to get the breaking pitch and change-up over consistently, so the hitter is now in a position to guess fast ball. If the fast ball is thrown in his hitting zone, he needs to "jump all over this pitch". The hitter who practices good bat discipline should have a chance to face the average pitcher in these ball-strike counts a couple of times per game. It is important that the hitter know what type of pitch the pitcher he is facing generally throws when ahead in the count and when behind in the count. Pitchers generally establish some type of pitch pattern during the game, and the intelligent hitter would then be in a position to look for certain pitches in the various ball-strike counts. If a pitcher has a difficult time getting his breaking pitch over the plate, the hitter must be patient in hopes that the pitcher gets behind in the count. If that occurs, the hitter can "look fast ball".
4. The game situation—There are various game situations that arise during the course of a game when the hitter must practice good bat discipline. The following are some of these situations with a brief discussion in regard to what the hitter must do in practicing good bat discipline when these situations arise in a game:
A. Lead off hitter in the game or in an inning—It is very important that the first hitter each inning find a way to get on base. The old saying that if "the defense can get the first batter out in the inning—the inning is half over" has a lot of merit. In order to have a big inning, the first hitter needs to get on base. Of course, the easiest way to do this is via the base on balls. Thus, the first hitter must practice good bat discipline so that he might have a great chance of getting on base via the walk or hitting one of the pitcher's "mistake pitches". The pitcher's confidence receives a tremendous lift when he gets the lead off hitter out, especially if the out is made on one of his better pitches. If the lead off hitter is not a good breaking ball hitter, he must take this pitch unless he reads a poor breaking pitch in his hitting zone. The lead off hitter for a team must be a young man who has a knack for good bat discipline and has a high on base percentage.
B. Baserunner at first base with no outs—The number two hitter in the lineup should be a hitter who has the ability to hit the ball to the right side of the field. Thus, the righthanded number two hitter should have the ability to drive the ball to the right side, and the lefthanded number two hitter should have the ability to pull the ball. With the first baseman holding a runner on at first base, it generally opens up the hole on the right side of the infield. If the shortstop and second baseman are playing the lefthanded hitter well to the pull side of the infield, the hitter must be able to drive the ball to the opposite field if the pitch is out over the plate. This is especially true if the third baseman is playing shallow at third base to protect against the sacrifice or drag bunt. It is much more difficult for the defense to complete a double play on the right side of the infield than it is from the left side of the infield. With a runner at first base with no outs, the hitter must discipline himself to look for the pitch in his hitting zone that he can drive to that area of the infield that will provide him the better chance to stay out of the double play. If the hit and run is on, the hitter needs to have some idea whether the shortstop or second baseman is covering second base so that he can "take a shot" to the vacated hole.
C. Baserunner at second base with no outs—This game situation should force the hitter to practice great bat discipline. He must discipline himself to respond to a pitch that he can hit hard to the right side of the infield to get the runner from second base over to third base. This is especially true in a close game where the runner at second base is a very important run. The hitter should make every effort to accomplish this without denying himself a chance to get a base hit. The righthanded hitter should look for a pitch that he can handle from the middle of the plate to the outside corner of the plate. An intelligent pitcher will attempt to keep the ball in on the hands of the righthanded hitter in this situation, so the hitter must discipline himself to take the inside pitch. There are very few righthanded hitters who can drive the inside pitch to the right side of the infield. Once the hitter has two strikes on him, he must then attempt to make solid contact while protecting the plate no matter where the pitch might be within the strike zone. The lefthanded hitter in this situation must look for a pitch that he can pull when he has no or one strike on him. As with the righthanded hitter, with two strikes he must make contact without forcing himself to have to pull the pitch. The intelligent pitcher will try to keep the ball away from the lefthanded hitter with the runner at second base and no outs. For this reason, the lefthanded hitter must look for a ball from the middle of the plate to the inside corner of the plate when he has no or one strike on him. The hitter must get the runner over to third base so that he can score on a sacrifice fly ball or base hit. A coach hates to think that he would have to sacrifice bunt in this situation, but he may have to do just that if the hitter does not have the capability to get the important run over to third base with the swing of the bat.
D. Baserunner at third base with less than two outs—The coach finds out quickly who really has great bat discipline on his club when this situation arises in the game. The hitter must look for a pitch that he can hit hard somewhere. The hitter who attempts to hit a long fly ball in this situation might find that the swing predicated on this type of attempt might result in a fly ball in the infield. It is better that the hitter concentrate on getting a pitch that he can "drive" somewhere, rather than to attempt to hit a fly ball. With less than two strikes, the hitter must be looking for a pitcher's "mistake" pitch. With two strikes, the hitter should just concentrate on making contact with the ball. A hitter should never be called out on a third strike with a runner in scoring position, particularly at third base. When the infield is playing in on the grass, the hitter should make even more of an effort to get a good pitch to hit with less than two strikes, since a hard ground ball will have an excellent chance of getting through the infield. The offensive team can not afford a fly ball in the infield or a strikeout with a baserunner at third base with less than two outs. The hitter must take tremendous pride in getting the runner at third base across the plate with his time at the plate.
E. Baserunners at first and third base with one out—Every attempt must be made to stay out of an inning ending double play in this situation. This is especially the case late in the game with an important run at third base. If the head coach decides to start the runner from first base, the hitter must exercise good bat discipline so that he might take advantage of the movement of the infielders to cover the steal attempt. Since it is much more difficult for the defense to complete a double play on the right side of the infield, the hitter should make every effort to go to that side of the field if the pitch allows him to do so.
F. No runners on base with two outs—in this situation, the hitter should be looking for the type of pitch when ahead in the count that he might be able to hit for extra bases. By getting the batter-runner to second base with two outs, there is a good chance he can score on a single in the outfield. There would be no chance of his scoring from first base on the same single to the outfield.
5. The plate umpire—The home plate umpire certainly is a factor in bat discipline. The nature of his strike zone should dictate to a large degree what the batter can and can not do with the particular pitcher on the mound. For example, if the umpire is a low ball umpire, the hitter must take this into consideration when evaluating the pitch on the way to the plate. With two strikes, he needs to protect the low part of the strike zone. With less than two strikes, he does not want the umpire's low strike to affect his swing tendency since all it would do is force him to swing at a pitch that he might not be able to handle effectively. If the umpire has a "tight" strike zone, the hitter can practice much better bat discipline than he would if the umpire has a "loose" strike zone. Hopefully, the plate umpire will establish his strike zone early in the game, and maintain that strike zone throughout the contest. If the strike zone constantly shifts, then the hitter needs to be sure that he protects the plate a little more when he has two strikes.
Bat discipline can be developed in batting practice with the coach staying with the hitters in the batting cage area so that all swings taken have some purpose to them. Swinging at pitches outside the strike zone in these batting practice sessions will carry over into the game as a rule. if hitters do not practice some degree of bat discipline in batting practice, it makes for a tougher time for the discipline to be carried over into the game itself. Situation hitting in batting practice sessions provide an opportunity for the player and coach to evaluate the hitter's bat discipline.
Inter-squad games provide an excellent opportunity for the entire team to work on their bat discipline. This is the reason for the different count games that should be played on many inter-squad game days. By placing the hitter in a certain count each time he steps to the plate, the batter learns what he is looking for in regard to the ball-strike count.
You can always tell a team that has good bat discipline for they seem to always jump on mistake pitches, and take the pitcher's good deliveries to the plate. A pitcher who has control problems but has good movement on his pitches loves to face a team with poor bat discipline, for they will keep him in the game by swinging at anything he throws in the general area of the strike zone.
Since bat discipline is basically mental concentration combined with the integration of the mental thought patterns with the physical capabilities of the hitter, it is difficult to teach. However, the coach who will spend time with his hitters preparing them mentally for what they must do at the plate should be coaching a more disciplined explosive offensive baseball team.
About the Article...
Legendary Mississippi State baseball coach Ron Polk, the winningest coach in any sport in the history of the Southeastern Conference, enters his third season as UAB's volunteer assistant coach in 2010. Polk came to UAB in the summer of 2008 after announcing his retirement from the Mississippi State program.
Polk has helped UAB to back-to-back winning seasons in his two years with the Blazers, including a 30-win campaign in 2009. He has helped the Blazers to victories in eight of 16 Conference USA series since his arrival, including 2009 series wins over both fourth-ranked Rice and eventual College World Series participant Southern Miss.
"It has been a personal highlight in life for me to be able to learn under Coach Polk in the 80's at Mississippi State and now work with him again at UAB," head coach Brian Shoop said. "I have more respect for Coach Polk than any coach in college baseball. No one has had more of an influence on our game and on countless young coaches, including myself. Our players love him and appreciate the sacrifices he makes to be involved with the UAB baseball program. We are better in so many ways because of Coach's decision to donate his time to Blazer baseball."
In July 2009, Polk was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1995. In 1988, he was presented with the Lefty Gomez Award, the highest award given by the ABCA.
Polk retired from Mississippi State in 2008, following his 29th season at the school. He ranks seventh all-time in NCAA career head coaching victories.
Polk concluded his 35-year career as a head coach with a career record of 1,373-700-2 (.662). In his career, which also included stints at Georgia Southern (1972-75) and Georgia (2000-01), Polk led his teams to a total of eight College World Series appearances, five SEC championships and 23 Regional appearances. He is one of only three coaches in college baseball history to take three different programs to the College World Series.
Polk mentored current UAB head coach Brian Shoop when the Blazer skipper was on his staff at Mississippi State from 1983-89. The Bulldogs won three SEC championships and made one trip to the College World Series during that time.
At Mississippi State, Polk recruited and coached some of the game's all-time greats, including Major League standouts Jeff Brantley, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Thigpen and Jonathan Papelbon. Those are just a few of the 185 of his former players that have signed professional contracts and a few of the 23 that have played in the Major Leagues.
A three-time National Coach of the Year, Polk held the position of Assistant Athletics Director for Special Projects at Mississippi State following his team's College World Series run in 1997. While in that position, Polk spearheaded a successful campaign to expand Polk-DeMent Stadium in Starkville. He returned to coaching at Georgia in 2000, where he spent two years before making the move back to Mississippi State for his final seven seasons.
Perhaps Polk's most talented Mississippi State squad ever was the 1985 version. That club finished the year 50-15 and was SEC champion before going on to appear in the College World Series. The 1985 Bulldog club featured future major league stars Brantley, Clark, Palmeiro and Thigpen.
In his 35 years as a college baseball coach, Polk produced 35 All-Americans and more than 75 All-SEC performers.
In addition to Polk's work in the collegiate ranks, the Boston, Mass., native has completed seven tours as a member of the coaching staff for the USA National Baseball Team, twice serving as head coach. Two of the teams he coached represented the United States in the Olympics.
Polk has also impacted the college baseball world through his literary work. He has authored "The Baseball Playbook," the nation's leading college textbook for baseball, and is featured in the book, "6 Psychological Factors for Success: America's Most Successful Coaches Reveal the Path to Competitive Excellence."