I recently posed a question to five hitters, four hitting coaches and a manager who once swung a potent bat. It was a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Whether a right answer exists is a matter of interpretation.
Is creating backspin a skill?
The question was originally posed in a presentation at last month’s saberseminar in Boston. Alan Nathan, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois and the creator of The Physics of Baseball, said he doesn’t know the answer. He does know the science involved, which he explained as follows:
“The spin of a batted ball affects its trajectory. For example, when a ball is hit at a moderate launch angle typical of long fly balls, say 25 to 35 degrees, backspin keeps the ball in the air longer so it can carry farther and improve the chances for a home run. When a ball is hit at a low launch angle — typical of line drives — say 10 to 15 degrees, topspin makes the ball take a nosedive and reduces the chance that an outfielder can catch up with it before it hits the ground.”
The players’ and coaches’ responses are below.
Greg Colbrunn, Boston Red Sox hitting coach: “I think it has to do with the mechanics of a swing. As a hitter, you’re trying to swing down through it. Whether you actually swing down or not is a whole other debate, but hitting down through the ball — and hitting line drives that take off — with backspin, is something we work on daily.
“You’re trying to stay short through the ball. Some days we’ll come out and just check the spin of the ball. Hitting off a tee, or short toss, you just watch the spin of the ball. It’s usually a pretty good indicator that everything is working right.
“I don’t know if you’re worried about the exact location on the ball; you just go through your normal mechanics. It would be interesting to find out more about the actual science behind it, but it’s mainly hitting the middle of the ball and working down through it.
“Some guys actually have great success with topspin. I think righties tend to hit more balls with topspin — kind of like a Pete Sampras forehand — over the shortstop’s head and in front of the left fielder. Jeff Bagwell used to topspin balls to left field with the best of them. He put so much spin on it, it was like a tennis shot. But then he would also backspin balls to right center that would go 400-something feet.
“Edwin Encarnacion hit a home run against us earlier this year, in Toronto, that ended up in the upper deck. That was probably one of the best definitions of true backspin. It was a ball on the inner half, he kept his hands inside of it, and put a great swing on it. You could see the backspin and it got great carry.
“It’s also about where you’re hitting balls in accordance to your swing. Balls you’re hitting way out front, the bat is coming through out and around and you probably have sidespin and they slice. It depends on rhythm and timing and where you contact the ball.”
Clint Frazier, Cleveland Indians outfield prospect: “In my opinion, to create a lot of backspin you need to have kind of a natural loft in your swing, that extra little 10 percent wrist in your swing. It’s not an uppercut, but you just create good loft. Ken Griffey, Jr. did a good job of it. Guys who are bigger, like 6-[foot-]3 or 6-4, can use leverage. But for me, at 5-foot-10, it’s kind of surprising I have natural loft in my swing. I can’t really explain it, but the ball just comes off my bat with backspin and a lot of velocity. I’m just squaring the ball up and getting backspin.”
Prince Fielder, Detroit Tigers first baseman: “That’s a good question. I guess I don’t really know. I haven’t [talked to hitting coaches about backspin] — only about having a good swing. When your swing is good, I’m assuming that’s what creates the backspin. I don’t know if creating backspin is a skill, or if it just comes from having a good swing. I just try to be as flat as possible to the ball. And everybody is usually going to try to stay inside the ball. That’s your natural instinct. Nobody wants to swing around the ball.”
Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox first baseman: “I’d say creating backspin is just a byproduct of a good swing. So, if creating a good swing is a skill… I don’t really know if creating backspin is a skill. But there are people who topspin the ball and then change their swing and have backspin, so that would mean it’s possible to develop. I think most hitters know what they do when one or the other comes off the bat. The guys who are really good have backspin more often.”
Jeff Manto, Chicago White Sox hitting coach: “It’s definitely a skill. You have to work on doing it. There are a lot of guys who will topspin a lot of balls. If you consider a grip a skill — it might be a fundamental more than a skill, but they go hand in hand — there are guys who are top-hand dominant and don’t really get that true backspin as we know it, similar to a golf ball rising.
“There are some guys who grip their top hand so tight, to where the ball won’t carry as far. One of the easiest ways to create backspin is your grip. I’m not saying it’s the only way, but it’s probably the easiest solution to mess with the grip first. You want backspin. It’s more advantageous when you’re out in front of a breaking ball.
“Adam Dunn is good at creating backspin. His bottom hand takes him for backspin. Alex Rios had some good backspin on the ball. Right now, we’re working on getting Avisail Garcia to add more backspin. We’re changing his bat path.
“Guys who hit the ball with topspin will have fewer home runs, because the ball will go out there and then die. But it’s not something where you need to have backspin. I think probably 40 percent of guys, if not more, don’t hit with backspin.”
Lloyd McClendon, Detroit Tigers hitting coach: “Most good hitters get on top of the ball. That’s a term we use. If you get on top of the ball, the ball comes off with backspin. It’s really the opposite of what people think. People try to get underneath the ball to create backspin and actually create topspin. You want to focus on the top half of the ball.
“If you’ve ever been in one of my practice sessions, you’re heard me screaming all the time: Get on top of the f-ing ball! Your focus should be out of the pitcher’s hand and you want to see the top half of the baseball and work your hands down through the ball. If you look at the swing itself — the path of the swing — it starts down, but at the point of contact there’s actually a slight uppercut.
“When I talk to players, I talk about staying inside the ball with the palm up at the point of contact. If the top hand is palm down, you’re going to roll over. If it’s palm up, you’re going to create that backspin.
“A guy here by the name of Miguel Cabrera creates good backspin. Prince Fielder. We have a lot of guys who do. Most of the young kids who come up through our organization — there’s a process we go through; we try to teach that philosophy. We’re making sure we stay inside the ball with what I call ‘focusing on the nail.’ I try to give them a little small point on the baseball. Just imagine there’s a nail on the inside part of the ball and that’s what you want to hit. That helps create good bat path, and with it, good backspin.
“A guy I’ve worked hard with is Jhonny Peralta. Jhonny really had a lot of topspin and would lose a lot of balls that would hook foul. Or, instead of going out of the ballpark, he’d hit doubles. But he got a lot better at it. His path was cleaned up and he started using two hands, making sure he had that top hand with palm up.”
Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox second baseman: “I think it’s probably both [a skill and natural]. You have to hit through the ball. What creates backspin is after you hit the ball — you hit through it and that’s how it carries. With certain pitches, it’s hard to do. Pitches down and away, two-seamers from a righty, because I’m a righty. Changeups are probably a little tougher.
“You can tell the spin of the ball when you hit it. You can see it. It gets more carry, you know. If you hit it with topspin, it doesn’t go.”
Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees third baseman: “It’s more about technique and leverage. You’re hitting down through the baseball and staying inside the baseball. Those are probably the two most important things. For me, backspin comes more left-center to right-center. I think it can be taught. Techniques can be improved and taught.”
Victor Rodriguez, Boston Red Sox assistant hitting coach: “Backspin is a mix of keeping the hands inside the ball and letting the ball travel. When you’re out front, and you open up, you aren’t going to backspin the ball. You want a direct path to the ball and to hit the top part. The ball is [spinning] this way, and when you make contact, it goes the other way. The toughest one is when it’s a curveball.
“We try to teach guys to stay square. With the right bat path — keeping the head of the bat true — and making contact in the right spot, that’s what you create. Sometimes guys hit the ball good, but with topspin. It’s where they make contact, the point of contact.
“David Ortiz creates backspin, especially when he stays middle of the field. The balls he hits that just keep going, that’s because of the backspin he creates. He’s a perfect guy about working on backspinning the ball. It’s something you need to work on every day, to feel it and create it.
“Mike Napoli is more of a topspin guy, but he has that strength to where, even though he gets topspin, he can drive it a long way. A lot of times, his bat path is a little long, but he uses his body a lot, not just his hands.”
Robin Ventura, Chicago White Sox manager: “It’s basically your bat path that gets you backspin. Some guys naturally have it and some guys have to learn, basically, how to get it. Backspin is more about being square. It’s about having the bat come in and make square contact on the inside part of the baseball. Other guys like to go around it a little bit. But I think you see more guys have backspin, who can hit the ball the opposite way, than guys that can just pull the ball.
“I didn’t have it as often as a lot of other guys. When I was first coming up, Harold Baines was an older player I would watch, and I took a few things from him. I think you learn it. I don’t think you necessarily just have it.”
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