"It's about pitch recognition," says Allard Baird, special assistant to Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.
"You have to have confidence hitting with two strikes," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says.
"You have to believe what your eyes tell you," Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire says.
"You do whatever you can to survive," Tigers outfielder Johnny Damon says.
Anyone can watch Ichiro Suzuki throw or Chone Figgins run and see that they're gifted. As for plate discipline, well, there isn't even agreement that it is a gift. Many believe plate discipline is something that can be taught, like the wheel play.
The evidence that taking a walk is a learned skill is pretty sketchy. Year after year at spring training you will hear how hackers like Jeff Francoeur or Yuniesky Betancourt plan to take more pitches. But they can't. Taking pitches is just not in their DNA. "Hitters normally improve their plate discipline somewhat over the course of their careers," says Red Sox senior adviser Bill James. "At the same time I wouldn't be wildly optimistic about hitters learning to draw more walks. Walks—unlike anything else in the hitter's record—are a simple measurement of a complex phenomenon."
The phenomenon, as seen just from the sampling of quotes above, involves numerous elements. Consider just one pitch: a slider that at the last instant dives out of the strike zone. To take that one pitch, a hitter has to almost instantaneously:
1) Recognize that it's a slider
2) Determine that it's not hittable
3) Determine that it will be called a ball