Rethinking How to Defend the Strike Zone


by: James M. Janik

A common problem for many hitters is over-eagerness. Balance is critical in hitting, and lunging forward to swing at a pitch defuses all bat speed and subsequent power. Pro hitters like to say, “You’ve got to let the ball come to you.”
That sounds like such a simple concept it hardly bares repeating. But yet, how many young hitters repeatedly lunge when they swing? How many hitters refuse to wait for the ball?

When young hitters begin facing stronger pitching, pitchers who have significant fast balls, their tendency is to start the swing earlier. That early commitment forces the hitter’s hands and trunk to move out in front of the plate before contact. In baseball speak, “He’s going out to get the pitch.” In real terms, he’s wasting all his energy before the ball reaches the bat.

So how can young hitters get themselves to wait? No matter how fast the pitcher is throwing, he still has to get the pitch over an 18-inch wide area to be successful. He still has to throw the ball into a relatively small window between the hitter’s knees and chest. The strike zone is really a small area to protect, if you think about it. In fact, if you look at hitting in the same way a hockey goalie defends his net, hitting takes on a whole new light.

A hockey goalie doesn’t bother blocking shots that are wide of the net. A hockey goalie doesn’t move forward to bat the puck out of his path. He waits. He defends the goal crease. Hitters can do the same thing.

Get yourself to think like a goalie. Your job is to defend the strike zone. You use a bat to keep the pitcher from scoring. Set up a game with your friends in which the pitcher tries to score goals off the hitter by getting the ball past him and into the strike zone. The hitter scores points by making saves – that is, by batting the ball away.

Using this mindset forces you to hit defensively. It encourages you to be selective. It trains you to wait for the ball to come to you. It helps shorten your swing.

Hitting is a reactionary process. The swing cannot begin until the hitter is sure the pitch is heading for the strike zone. The hitter must see and identify the pitch. That requires waiting. With this goalie exercise, young hitters can develop the patience needed to “stay back” and maintain balance when swinging. After accomplishing that, you can focus on becoming more aggressive.

Because, unlike hockey goalies, ball players want to do more than just knock the ball away. We want to knock the ball very hard. Hitters need to defend the strike zone, but defend it aggressively. Thinking like a goalie can help put you on the right track toward waiting for the ball -- and then crushing it!