Being a productive hitter is as simple as making good decisions. Should you swing? Should you take? Pitchers try to make this difficult as it relates to throwing strikes or throwing "almost strikes". Keep swinging or stop swinging sounds simple, but as hitters we can often over complicate things and get in the way of our own performance. Either way, the central aspect of the game revolves around the strike zone.
Let's look at a different perspective of the strike zone broken into four attack zones:
The Heart: This is where the batter can do the most damage and should be swinging the most often. Pitches taken in the heart are called strikes.
The Shadow: This is where the battle between hitter and pitcher lives. It's that area of the strike zone that lives on the edge - partially inside the zone and partially outside of the zone.
The Chase: Pitches in this area are designed to get batters to chase or swing and miss. Called pitches are usually balls and when batters swing the results are usually poor.
The Waste: These are pitches well off the plate. Pitches that are located here are probably unintentional and don't happen often. Think wild pitches or non-competitive pitches. Hitters rarely swing at these and have virtually no chance to do damage here.
Why does this matter? Hitters need to know their strengths and optimize their swing decisions accordingly. All hitters need to swing often and do damage in the heart of the zone. All hitters need to lay off the waste pitches as these are usually wild unintended misses by the pitcher. If you can't do those things, your career as a hitter will be short lived. The difference makers are the shadow zone and the chase zone.
The shadow zone is where pitchers are primarily attacking. These are the "almost strikes" and the "almost balls" that give hitters a more difficult time to barrel up. Good pitchers try to get ahead here and miss hard barrel contact. When pitchers get ahead they go more into the chase zone. It's called that because these pitches are intended to get a hitter to swing and miss by chasing outside of the zone where a pitch would clearly be a ball.
What can hitters do? - Juan Soto Example.
AVG: .313 4th MLB
OBP: .465 1st MLB
SLG: .534 17 MLB BB: 145 1st MLB K: 93 90th Percentile of MLB
Juan Soto had an elite 2021 season. Obviously he has great bat to ball skills, but what really makes him a force at the plate is the fact that he has great plate discipline.
Looking at the image we can see the "run value" or offensive value for Juan Soto's swings and takes related to each zone. His swing decisions and performance gave him a +54 run value - 2nd in MLB.
Heart: +8 Shadow: -7
Chase: +36 Waste: +17
Let's break this down even more based on his swings and takes in each area.
In this image we can see how many pitches Soto saw in each zone broken down by swings or takes.
Heart +8 Runs: pitchers don't want to go here. Hitters should be able to do damage.
Pitch Frequency: 26% Swing Rate: 70%
Shadow -7 Runs: pitchers try to win this location and get weaker contact, misses, and called strikes.
Pitch Frequency: 40%
Swing Rate: 38%
Chase +36 Runs: pitchers get ahead and try to get a swing and miss on pitches that would be called balls.
Pitch Frequency: 23%
Swing Rate: 7%
Waste +17 Runs: pitcher mistakes, well off the plate.
Pitch Frequency: 11%
Swing Rate: 0%
As you can see, the shadow zone is the toughest area to be offensively productive. This is the edge of balls and strikes and is the only area where Soto was negative in run value. What is elite is the fact that Soto dominated on decisions out of the strike zone by only swinging at 4.8% of all pitches (40/836) seen that were obvious balls in the chase or waste zones. It's no surprise he earned his walks, cut down on K's, and frustrated pitchers with his self discipline not to expand his zone.
Soto is very selective aggressive. Early in the count he is willing to take a strike in the shadow zone, looking for a better pitch to hit hard. Get ahead of him with two strikes and he simply refuses to swing at balls. Think you can get him out with the high fastball in the shadow zone? Nope. With two strikes he almost always swings on that "shadow" pitch.
Looking at Soto's ability to hit the ball hard in each zone we can try to optimize swinging in those locations as much as possible. It gives a greater chance to make quality contact. In the images below you can see Soto's AVG EV by zone along with his Batting AVG (contact only) for each zone. Figure out where your hitters strengths are and focus swings and takes accordingly.
As hitters, we need to swing often in the heart of the zone and do damage. We need to lay off the chase and waste zones. Finally, we need to be able to compete when necessary in the shadow zone - such as a 2 strike situation.
Check out some other articles about approach and swing decisions here:
For more details about swing/take offensive production visit this link http://tangotiger.com/index.php/site/article/statcast-lab-swing-take-and-a-primer-on-run-value