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Here, I'm not talking about balls that barely miss the strike zone, being barely outside the plate or below the knees. More like pitches that go into the dirt, or six inches wide of the plate.

What makes batters sometimes chase such pitches? Do they really believe that they can hit them? Or has the pitcher fooled them into believing that they will be called strikes even when they miss by a wide margin?

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It really depends on the batter, and so many other circumstances. If the hitter is on a hitting streak, they probably feel more comfortable making contact with more poorly thrown balls. Or, if you're Vladimir Guerrero, you'll just swing at pitches in the dirt because you tend to hit home runs off of them.... –  Nicholas V. Jan 15 at 21:14

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First off, the strike zone is a mystical thing sometimes. While there are specific guidelines, some umpires change it a little based on the height or size of the batter. Most of the time, batters swing at these pitches because from the pitchers windup, they thing it will be a strike. They follow the ball usually as it passes the ear of the pitcher (left for a southpaw and right for a righty) Some pitches such as a slider, fake the batter out by appearing to come down the plate, but fall lower than anticipated, hence the name. A change up or off speed pitch do the same to a batter from their view. They believe that they will cross the plate in the strike zone, therefore they take a whack at it but often whiff if they don't realize the style of pitch. Most good batters can tell when an off speed pitch is coming down the pike, and plan for it, holding off or taking a swing. Hope this helps to clear things up.

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I think the biggest reason no one has touched upon, besides the obvious difficulty in judging a pitch to be far out of the strike zone or not is the hit and run play.

If there is a runner on base and this play is called the batter will (and should) swing at any pitch unless it is egregiously hard to hit. (Sometimes they still swing to throw off the catcher and make throwing out the runner a little more difficult).

The whole point of a hit and run is that the man on base will be taking off as soon as the pitcher goes and will prevent a double play if the batter hits a routine ground ball (hopefully). If the batter manages a hit the runner might even be able to score from first or second on a hit which he would normally not. If the batter doesn't make contact then the runner could be thrown out, technically caught stealing.

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On average, it takes about 4 tenths of a second for a ball to cross the plate after it leaves the pitcher's hand. In that time, the batter needs to determine if the pitch is going to be hittable, where the pitch is going to cross the plate and then get their bat around in the time and place to hit it where they want to hit it. With such a smaller window available to make multiple decisions and react, it's only understandable that they'd make the wrong decision and over commit to swing at a terrible pitch.

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