Around little-league parks, and even on the back fields of certain schools and organizations, you might hear a common refrain from the batting cages. “Chop wood, chop wood,” is how Bryce Harper mimics the coaches he’s heard before. The idea is that a quick, direct path to the baseball — like an ax chop — is the best way to get quickly to the ball and create the backspin that fuels the power.
Turns out, pretty much all of that is wrong.
Where do you start with a thing like this? Let’s start first with the idea that backspin is something hitters should be focusing on. It isn’t.
“It works in batting practice,” laughed Evan Gattis when we talked about backspin. “It’s great then.” Brandon Moss agreed. “In batting practice, backspun balls go forever, so you think that’s the most efficient way to hit it,” Moss practically yelled. “I do not want backspin. I want my ball to go up, and I kind of want it to draw. That means I got behind it and stayed on it.”
There’s science behind what they are saying, too. Alan Nathan studied the effect of batted ball spin on batted ball distance this year in a closed environment, and found very little effect of the spin on the distance. “There is remarkably little variation in fly-ball distance due to variation in spin, largely due to the increase of drag with increasing spin,” is how the paper summarized the effect. More spin means more drag and less distance.
But there’s another reason that trying for backspin is a bad idea. Moss gets at it: “I don’t like backspin because I’m clipping it, and if I’m clipping it, I’m in and out of the zone.” Gattis said something very similar. “You’re going to cover more if you get your hands down to the zone first. You have to match that. You’d have to hit it so perfectly if you were chopping wood.”
Open it up, and you’ll hear others say the same thing.
Bryce Harper: “If you look at the best swings in baseball, it’s through the baseball as long as you can.”
J.D. Martinez: “I used to always think ‘hit down on the baseball’ and after studying everyone’s swings, I changed that, because that’s not what other people are doing. They’re doing what feels like an uppercut.”
Jimmy Rollins: “[The ax bat] makes you swing down like an ax. And that’s isn’t really a baseball swing. That’s the difference between a bat and an ax — with the ax, there’s one part, the blade, but with a bat, it’s round. You can use any part of the bat to hit.”
Brandon Moss: “Don’t chop wood. Terrible. It’s a short swing, but it’s a swing that takes absolute perfect timing. You have to be so precise. If you don’t hit it right, you clip it. It’s on the ground, or it’s a foul out, or it’s a backspun fly ball which goes nowhere. Match your shoulders and your hips with the barrel of the bat.”
Josh Donaldson: “Depending on the angle of the pitches, it’s going to change the angle of how my body is going to be at impact. If I’m hitting a low pitch, to get it in the zone, I’m going to [have a lower back shoulder], and I’m going to be into my legs and matching it with my lower half.”
None of that sounds like chopping wood.
“The longer I can stay on the plane of that baseball, the better I’m going to be at hitting it,” said Brandon Moss finally to finish our conversation about chopping wood. And that’s really the problem with it. If you’re chopping wood, you’re trying to get your bat to a single spot in space and time. If you concentrate instead on getting your hands down to the zone quickly, and then being level through the zone, you allow yourself more time to adjust to the changing path of the baseball.
“Sharp line drives”: that’s what Evan Gattis wants. And you don’t get that from chopping to the pitch and thinking about meaningless backspin.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.