Player’s View: Is Creating Backspin a Skill?

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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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

30 Responses to “Player’s View: Is Creating Backspin a Skill?”

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  1. Spit Ball says:

    I’ve noticed Will Myers creates a lot of backspin with his swing.

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  2. Straw Man says:

    Cool article. And there are kids around, Lloyd Mclendon, watch your language.

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  3. Brett says:

    Lloyd McClendon needs a physics lesson

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    • Jeremiah says:

      This was my thought too. Hitting the top of the ball creates backspin, while hitting the bottom creates topspin? He’s just lucky to have good hitters on his team.

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      • Free Bryan LaHair says:

        i was thinking the same thing. i then googled “lloyd mcclendon is crazy” to see if articles came up on him be a little yogi-berra-ish. no luck.

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      • Dan says:

        Or perhaps it’s a reading comprehension issue rather than an understanding of physics issue.

        He doesn’t say “hitting the top of the ball” and “hitting the bottom (of the ball)”, he says “get on top of the ball” and “get underneath the ball”. It has to do with the swing path through the ball rather than where the bat first hits the ball.

        If you “get on top of the ball” swinging down on it you strike the back of the ball in a direction from top to bottom, creating backspin. If you “get underneath the ball” you strike it more from bottom to top creating topspin.

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  4. Thijs says:

    Actually, he is right. What he really should say, is a downward swingplane that hits the baseball in the back. If you swing up on the ball, similar like tennisplayers do (and pingpongplayers for that matter) your batted ball will nosedive. If you have played baseball, you will know exactly what he means.

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    • chuckb says:

      This is right. It sounds goofy, but you want to hit the top of the ball to create backspin. Then, as a couple others said, down through the ball so that, by swinging through the ball after hitting above the midpoint, you create backspin. You’re not literally hitting on top of the ball, just above the center of the ball and then bringing the bat down through it. If you hit the bottom half, on the other hand, you’re going to bring the bat through the ball and create topspin.

      Really super interview, David. A lot of this stuff reinforces what my son’s hitting coach tells him. I’m going to make sure he reads this.

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      • Free Bryan LaHair says:

        hitting above the center line of a ball with a swing parallel to the ground will not create backspin. what creates backspin is hitting above the centerline, down through the ball to the bottom front of the ball. this creates a rolling backward effect known as backspin. if the ball is spinning backwards when it hits the ground, the spin will reverse and spin forward “jumping” the ball forward. conversely, if the ball is spinning forward when it hits the ground, it will reverse and spin backwards causing the ball to slow down through the outfield gaps.

        the best visual for this is a bouncy ball. throw a bouncy ball and watch it is it alternates spinning forward and backwards with each bounce it takes. one bounce it will propel away from you, and the next it will seem like it waits on you to grab it. the “jumping forward” effect is why it seems so difficult to chase after a bouncy ball sometimes.

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        • Cliff says:

          Huh? Bouncy balls do not usually spin at all. Balls with backspin reverse when they hit the ground because they are traveling forward. Balls with topspin will NOT reverse when they hit the ground, although the speed of rotation will slow due to friction, which will also cause the ball to skip.

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        • Free Bryan LaHair says:

          @Cliff bounce a bouncy ball away from you. not up and down. it bounces away from you, then almost straight up, then away from you again. you must not have played with bouncy balls growing up.

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  5. Iron says:

    It may not get a ton of comments, but every one of these ‘ask the players/coaches’ articles have been great and this one is no exception. It’s funny how much more interesting and intelligent these guys sound when they actually get asked a really good question. (Or occasionally reveal surprising ignorance).

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  6. Steiner says:

    LOL @ Lloyd McClendon.

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  7. Alan Nathan says:

    Let me comment on the physics of how the batted ball gets backspin. It mainly has to do with the swing plane and the ball-bat contact. It is easier to demonstrate the relevant physics by considering a ball hit off a tee, since the motion of the pitch only changes the details but not the essential physics. First, refer to the pictures in this link: In both pictures, we see the bat in contact with the stationary ball. We also see a dashed line connecting the center of the bat to the center of the ball. The basic idea is that if the direction of the bat velocity (the “swing plane”) is below the dashed line, then the ball will be hit with backspin. If above the line, it will be hit with topspin. If along the line, then no spin. The major point is that the backspin depends on two different things: the swing plane (above or below the line) and the position of the line. The latter depends on the relative centering of the ball and bat at contact.

    So, in some sense, everyone is right. You can get backspin by hitting the ball in the center with a downward swing plane. You can get backspin with the bat hitting the bottom side of the ball with a level swing. etc. etc.
    Different strokes for different folks, so to speak.

    Now as I said, some of the details are different if the ball is not initially at rest, primarily because the ball is moving at a slightly downward trajectory at contact. Therefore a level swing really means swinging upward at the same angle that the ball is descending (6-10 deg). But the essential argument is still the same.

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  8. Alan Nathan says:

    One more comment on my comment. If the batter’s goal is to hit a long fly ball, the batted ball must have a high speed (i.e., hit hard), it must have a launch angle in the approximate range 25-35 degrees, and it must have backspin. In my previous comment, I discussed the swing plane and the contact point as two independent variables for obtaining backspin. I did not consider launch angle. It is possible to solve the optimization problem to find the best combination of swing plane and contact point that gives the longest fly ball, taking into account both backspin and launch angle. A good attempt at solving that problem was published a decade ago by Prof. Mont Hubbard (a PITCHf/x summit veteran). It is a bit heavy on the formalism, but you can look at the paper here:

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  9. channelclemente says:

    All this ‘backspin’ devotion certainly explains the long flyball out and popup Renaissance. If one accepts the premise that a HR is an accident or chance event, I’m at a loss to explain backspin’s roll in it. As Nathan says, launch angle and ball velocity are far more important parameters, IMO.

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  10. Hammer says:

    Back spin, back spin, stay inside, get your foot down, stay inside. Direct balls, Direct balls, nurse ground balls the other way. Hit 47 hoppers in the 4 hole. Hit the top 1/2, hit the bottom 1/2. Eliminate pitches, work counts, be aggressive, but take your walks. Hitters are so domed up now days, they are more prone to rely on a mechanical tweaks than improve their God given abilities. They are losing the ability to develop their reactions. Hand eye, bat speed, & athleticism to their swings. We keep complicating things. Prince & half the other guys in the article are more concerned w/ seek & destroy than they are with the trojectory, degrees celsius, & everything else. Good hitters hit, sweat, work @ it, keep the athleticism to their swings allowing their swings to develop naturally. This also allows the swing to get stronger, develops incresed hand eye, upgrades ability to use the whole field, & allows them to get to more than just 1 pitch. Like the science aspic of it, & the article, but simplicity is the greatest form of sophistication.

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  11. Ben Gburek says:

    Could Votto’s lack of pop ups have something to do with him being an extreme topspin hitter?

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  12. Jim Bouldin says:

    Great article, thanks David. And thanks to Alan Nathan for clarifying the confusions.

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  13. Swingdoc says:

    If a study was conducted on spin rates and line drives, physics and common sense would dictate that players with the highest LD rates will have the lowest spin rates. Yes, more backspin = longer carry & more home runs and more Ks since the margin of error is lower. For the largest margin of error, players swing on the plane of the incoming pitch 5-20% (different for various levels of play!) and hit flat line drives. Balls hit to the pull side will be hit a bit more out in front and can still go for line drives with slight topspin while balls hit to the opposite field can be hit for line drives with slight backspin (can’t really topspin a ball to the opposite field). IMHO, this is what all great hitters learn through the best learning process – trial and error as there is an overabundance of misinformation.

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    • Alan Nathan says:

      My talk at the Saberseminar last month (slides here: discussed among other things the tradeoff between optimizing BABIP and hitting home runs. In both cases, the ball should be hit hard. For optimizing BABIP, a low trajectory is desired, one that clears the infield but falls in front of an outfielder. Backspin is not desirable; in fact, topspin is better, just like in tennis. For optimizing HR, the launch angle needs to be steeper and backspin is desirable for longer carry. One of my goals (as yet, not achieved) is to translate those optimization conditions for the batted ball into optimization conditions for the swing plane and contact point.

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      • Swingdoc says:

        Thanks for the link. Agreed that topspin is better but cost of more precise (lower margin for error) contact probably exceeds the benefit.

        I’d be very interested in your work on swing plane and contact point. I’ve done some simulation analysis and the middle / middle pitch seems fairly straightforward as far as plane and contact point. I think where it gets tricky is how this varies with pitch location – mostly inside / outside. While I don’t know for sure, my guess is that some adjustment to both has to be made to get the ball on the optimal trajectory. The low and away pitch for example. The ball has to travel a bit deeper but you want to hit it flat/square at say 7 degrees. Again, just guessing, but the only way to reconcile those opposing factors would seem to be slight backspin. The follow on question would be – Is it symmetrical – so slight topspin for high inside pitches. Enjoy your work, thanks!

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  14. Jim Bouldin says:

    Couple of random thoughts.

    First, it would seem that a curveball would have a better chance of spin-aided carry than a fastball, because a curve is already spinning in the direction you want, and the bat just accelerates that, whereas with a fastball, at least a four-seamer, you have to reverse that spin. But a fastball velocity is greater, so I wonder how the two effects interact in terms of distance traveled by the batted ball.

    I don’t quite understand McLendon’s theory on “hitting down” on the ball. It would seem to me you’d want the plane of the swing parallel with the trajectory of the ball over the plate, to maximize contact potential and allow hitting to all fields.

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    • Alan Nathan says:

      Responding to your first random thought…

      What you say would seem to make sense. Indeed, Hubbard in the paper I linked to yesterday claimed based on his model that an optimally hit curveball can be hit farther than an optimally hit fastball. The reason is exactly what you said, that a curveball can be hit with more backspin. However, more recent experiments cast doubt on Hubbard’s model and show that the spin of a batted ball is only weakly dependent (at best) on the spin of the pitched ball. See for all the details.

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      • Jim Bouldin says:

        Thanks much Alan. Your various researches are greatly interesting. I’ve been looking at several papers and now, your web site. It’s this type of controlled analysis of fundamental-level events that will most improve our understanding of the game, I think.

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      • Jim Bouldin says:

        Another thought just occurred to me supporting the observations in your linked paper. In high school I can remember hitting fastballs as line drives that knuckled. If the original spin direction and rate has an effect on the post-contact spin, then the only way to do that would be to hit the ball on the bottom half, with a force that exactly countered the back spin of the fastball, thus producing a knuckler. But this would necessarily lead to a pop up or fly ball, and I was hitting line drives.

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