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The Role of Backspin in Hitting

One thing many hitting instructors spend a lot of time talking about is the idea of backspin. They believe that...

  • You can't hit home runs without backspin.
  • When a ball is hit a long way, it's because it was hit with backspin.
  • It's important to try to create backspin.

You can see this assumption at work in statements like...

Hitters that hit with a lot of backspin, you can tell by the way the flight of the ball and the way it carried.

As a result, they teach a number of mechanical things, like swinging down on the ball, that they believe will increase the odds that a ball will come off the bat with backspin.

I've never been particularly comfortable with the idea that backspin is necessary to hitting the ball a long way and that hitters should, or even can, be taught to hit the ball with backspin. That is because, while the research I've read says that backspin is certainly a good thing, my knowledge of the game says that backspin probably isn't something a hitter can control while still hitting for a reasonable average.

I didn't known how to determine whether good hitters are actually using backspin to hit home runs until one day when I was looking at some clips of pitchers and correlating the spin of their pitches with the type, movement, and quality of those pitches. I did this by watching the seams of the ball using high speed clips that I had shot. After a few days of doing this, and being amazed at how well I could monitor the spin of the ball once I got the hang of it, I realized that my clips might allow me to answer the question of the role that backspin plays in hitting.

The first thing I did was take a close look at the clip below, which shows a no-doubt home run to left field hit by a local independent minor leaguer. I started with this clip because I knew it was shot in good light. That is important because you have to have good light in order to be able to see the seams of the ball and how the ball is rotating.

Backspin (or Not)

Home Run to Left Field

What the clip above shows is a complete absence of backspin. You can tell from watching the seams of the ball as it comes off of the bat that the ball isn't spinning much, if at all. In other words, rather than coming off the bat with backspin like a fastball, the ball is coming off the bat with little to no spin like a knuckleball.

Curious whether what I saw in that first clip was a fluke or something more significant, I then went through my clips again and found another clip of a home run, this time to the opposite field.

Backspin (or Not)

Home Run to Left Field

Again, you can see that this ball wasn't hit with backspin. Instead, it was hit mostly flat with just a tick of topspin and sidespin.

In both cases, that means that the spin of the ball isn't contributing much, if anything, to the ball's trajectory or distance. Of course, the fact that two hitters can hit no-doubt home runs with little to no backspin says that backspin might not be as important, much less as necessary, as people seem to think.

Joe Thurston's Swing

Joe Thurston
Swinging Down for Backspin

That means that all of those hitters out there who have been taught to swing down for backspin — and who have ended up with hideous swings that make it extremely difficult for them to make consistent, solid contact with the ball — are wasting their time and their talent.

Tony Gwynn on Backspin

Here's what Tony Gwynn once said about backspin and whether you should practice creating it.

For me the most effective way to practice hitting is to use a batting tee and a bag of wiffle balls. Tee it up and start hacking. The sooner you can hit a wiffle ball cleanly off a tee, the sooner you will become a better hitter. When you hit a wiffle ball off a tee correctly, it acts like a knuckleball. You can hear the air going through the ball. When you don't hit it correctly, you create spin on the ball and it goes all over the place. When the ball spins alot, I make adjustments to correct my swing. Even after 18 years in the big leagues, every winter I go home and break out the tee and wiffle balls. It's not the most exciting thing, so you have to be creative. I put my headphones on and listen to my favorite music while I concentrate on my hitting technique.

Notice how he focused on hitting the ball square, not cutting the ball and trying to create backspin.

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