By Dirk Hayhurst
They say there are three ways to get hitters out: velocity, movement and command. As long as you have two of the three, you can pitch forever.
During my last season in baseball, playing for the Durham Bulls in 2011 -- a season I went into with a surgically altered shoulder and a diminished fastball -- I only had one of those at my disposal: command. I never threw overwhelmingly hard, but now that I was maxing out at an average hitter's bat speed, I needed an edge just to stay competitive.
Steroids were out. Stuff like pine tar, Firm Grip and shaving cream only improved pitchers who were already good by tightening and increasing ball spin. Now that I was throwing in the 86-88 mph range, even with tighter rotation, my late break wasn't late enough.
I could have cut my necklace shorter, so that when it flopped out of my shirt after each pitch, I could go to a secret patch of slick'em underneath my collar. I could do something like Greg Maddux was rumored to have done and stick Vaseline in my lower lip, or blend some slime into my mullet, Buchholz style.
But lube is an art. It takes time to learn and you throw a lot of balls in the dirt, or into batters' kneecaps. These were not smart things for a guy in the twilight of his career to be doing if he wanted to stay employed.
That left me with one option -- scuffing a baseball.
I had tried it before. Hell, every pitcher has. It's actually one of those things you become convinced you should try because of the hitters. After they strike out facing a pitcher with a particularly nasty, physics-defying sinker or cutter, they come back to the dugout shaking their heads and mumbling, "That son of a bitch has to have a scuffed ball or something." If that's not a ringing endorsement for a pitcher to cheat, I don't know what is.
Scuffing always worked for me, but I never had the nerve to mix it in full time. At the lower levels, you need to execute consistently to prove to management that you have what it takes to move up. Balls with scuffs aren't as common as you'd think, since baseballs are so readily thrown out as soon as they're defaced, and it's not smart to rely on what you can't access at will.
Besides, It's much easier to trust your young, natural, healthy arm to do the work -- at least your first time up the ladder. When you hit your fourth tour of Triple-A and all the decision makers who control who gets promoted think they know what your natural ceiling is, that's the time you go to your bag of tricks.
The first thing to know about a scuffed ball is that, once scuffed, the ball will break in the opposite direction of the scuff. You want to scuff the flat, wide, seam-free surfaces of the ball when you can, and try to make sure that you get a consistent scuff. You don't need a gash. Deeper is not necessarily better -- wider is. Surface area matters, and the wider the patch, the more run or tail you can get.
The great thing about a scuffed ball is that you can almost always get it to do something, even if you haven't mastered the action yet. When I wasn't sure of the exact scuff-to-movement ratio, I could always move the scuff to the top of the ball and throw it right down the middle. The sink would almost always ensure a groundball if struck. And if it was too low and called a ball, so what? Low is a good place to miss.
When placing the scuff on the right or left, I could take my best fastball and throw it well outside the batters box, to the point where a right-handed hitter would gave up on it, only for that pitch to bend back into the strike zone. Conversely, I could throw a cutter at a right-handed batter and watch him go weak-kneed over what appeared to be a beanball, only for the pitch to cut back into he zone. Or I could switch the effect, running a strike out of the zone on a lefty hitter, and running a cutter from the middle of the zone all the way up a hitter's bat handle.
A master scuff-baller can do a lot with very little effort. Consider that the average fastball is around 91 mph. The typical slider is always a few miles per hour slower. But with a scuffed ball, you could throw a 90 mph version of your slider, depending on how effectively you've scuffed your ball.
There are many ways to do it, but almost every scuffing method requires you to change your between-pitch routine. Keep in mind that no matter how you choose to cheat, whether it's applying goo or a scuff, you need to make the application look like it's a seamless part of your routine.
Doug Brocail could get a fresh ball back from the umpire and, within three windmill-like movements of his throwing arm, have a ball so scuffed you'd think he just took sandpaper to it, though he used nothing more than his thumbnail. My pitching coach in A ball, Dave Rajsich, told me of a teammate who once cut the red Rawlings "R" out of his glove only to replace it with a red (painted) sandpaper facsimile, with a painted white "R" in the center. He'd pass the ball over the letter like he was casually adjusting his mitt.
I had catchers who offered to use the clasp of their shin guards to get me a scuff. They'd take the ball from the umpire, then, letting their hand fall naturally in the downward arc of their throwing motion, pass the ball over the clasp as they completed their throwing circle.
If you don't have nails of steel, arts and crafts skills with sandpaper, or a catcher who likes to play dirty, the best way to get a scuff is by bringing a scuffing tool to the mound with you. Fortunately, one is already implanted in your glove.
In the palm portion of your glove, where the pocket of the mitt is woven to the interior portion where your catching hand goes, there are little metal eyelets that leather strands are threaded through. These eyelets, with the help of some needle-nose pliers, can be bent up to give you a scuffing edge. You can find those needle-nose pliers in your clubhouse attendents' glove repair kit, FYI.
Another great technique is to put some grit on your fingernails. My finger nails would crack when I pitched, so I'd tear off a piece of a Band-Aid (the adhesive striping), place it over the crack, then superglue it to make it stick in place -- a fake fake nail that stayed on better than real fake nails (which I also tried). I noticed that when the glue dried it made the meshing of the Band-Aid stiff, like sandpaper. The white residue of the glue along with the skin colored Band-Aid looked natural and blended in. Later, I decided to upgrade to actual sandpaper and super glue, which I cut in the shape of my nail. No one ever noticed it was there.
You can also try putting a tack, the flat-headed kind, under your belt and pressing the point out. Do it near your hip line, or where you'll most often go to tug up your pants. I don't recommend the tack, as it can often gash a ball, or leave what looks obviously like a pinhole. Besides, a tack doesn't allow you to scuff wide surfaces without a lot of work. This is the same reason I don't like to sharpen the prong on my belt buckle clasp, another scuffer's go-to tool.
There are other ways to scuff, but I've found the eyelets and hidden sandpaper are the most effective ones, and easily worked into your routine. It's also wise to have multiple scuffing agents on the mound with you. This way, you don't get stuck lingering on one if you really need a scuff for your next pitch. If you've scuffed two spots, you can start a tear on the ball with one, advance it with the other, then finish it with your fingernails. Or, after you get the ball back from umpire, take one pass over the eyelets, one pass of sandpaper nail, then make three windmill windings of the arm with the thumb nails working -- great scuff.
Remember that you don't have to scuff a ball to perfection before each pitch. You can throw a sinker, work your scuff, throw another sinker, work your scuff, then throw that max-velocity Frisbee cutter.
Once you get your scuffing arsenal and technique down, remember that it can work against other pitches that you're used to throwing without a scuff. If you throw a natural curve or slider, a scuffed ball can screw with them. It's especially good at ruining the command of your changeup, as that is a slower pitch, which will sail on you if dramatically scuffed.
Not to worry: If you need a fresh ball, all you need to do is announce to the umpire that the ball you're using is too scuffed to continue and you're throwing it out for a new one -- all for the sake of fair play. Not only does this give you a fresh pearl, it also makes everyone watching you think you can't throw a scuffed ball.
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Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also a best-selling author, and has appeared on Baseball America, Bleacher Report, Deadspin, The Score, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more. More from Dirk at www.dirkhayhurst.com. Follow him on twitter at @thegarfoose