Laurila: Is creating backspin a skill?

From SABR member David Laurila at FanGraphs on September 9, 2013, with mention of SABR member Alan Nathan:

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.”

Read the full article here:

Originally published: September 11, 2013. Last Updated: September 11, 2013.