Pitch Movement, Part II: Sweet Seams (Are Made of This)

March 15, 2020 • Analysis

In Part I, we quickly reviewed how spin creates movement via Magnus force and the different characteristics of a pitch's spin that alters its impact. Here in Part II, we're going to look at the role the seams play in determining pitch movement.

Laminar Express: Theory vs Reality

Laminar flow sort of entered the baseball vernacular thanks to a January 2012 post at The Hardball Times by Dr. Alan Nathan that took a hard look at a Freddy Garcia pitch to explain its movement. In the course of describing it, he offered an extensive explanation of the results of experiments undertaken by Professor Rod Cross that illuminated a laminar-turbulent gradient effect. I recommend reading it and trying to wrap your head around it, even going down the rabbit hole of links he provided, but if you don't have time for that, Cross published a YouTube video that amounts to a crash course:

The criminally short version is this: if you can create a persistent smooth patch on the leading surface of a baseball, it creates a laminar-turbulent air flow gradient, and the ball's flight will deflect away from the smooth patch.

For a while, Trevor Bauer and Driveline Baseball believed this gradient influenced the flight of a special two-seamer, but that always struck me as curious because all video of this special pitch appeared to show the ball moving toward the smooth patch.

When Barton Smith wrote a post about how Trevor Bauer's Laminar Express two-seamer might work, Driveline Baseball paid him a visit. The initial results showed the effect, but it took several more posts and a realization about the spin axis itself before the explanation truly fit with previous findings. He uncovered a surprise: the magic of the smooth patch appeared to be what it meant about the location of the seams rather than the supposed laminar-turbulent gradient.

The key appears to be putting and keeping a seam in a location that causes boundary layer separation as early as possible on one side of the ball, which tends to delay boundary layer separation on the opposite side thanks to the ball's unique seam pattern.

PIV seam separation.
Smith's PIV data for a ball moving straight up. The seam on the left creates turbulence that delays boundary layer separation, and the seam on the right causes boundary layer separation. An asymmetrical wake is created, indicating a force to the left. (Source: baseballaero.com, used with permission.)

Enter: Seam-based Wake Effects

Was this the first observed and explained seam effect? Only kind of because, of course, Dr. Mike Marshall published a description similar to this in 2003 in Chapter 19 of his online book:

With two figure eight patterns sewn together, baseballs formed four loops. I determined that baseballs could rotate in such a manner as to have one of these loops constantly on its leading surface. In this way, this loop could create a circle that constantly collided with air molecules. I call the circle that this loop creates, ?The Circle of Friction.?

That sure sounds an awful lot like what's going on with the Laminar Express, doesn't it? Further reading of Chapter 19, however, fails to reveal where exactly The Circle of Friction should be, leaving the reader with nothing more than "different places ... on its leading surface". At best, Marshall's was a partial explanation.

This seam shifted wake effect is somewhat possible with a standard two-seam orientation and some gyro spin, but that isn't the only way to use a seam to cause early boundary layer separation. Smith was able to tweak the seam orientation and create this effect without any gyro spin. He explained it in a short video that appears to reveal The Circle of Friction around a smooth patch. While spinning, it looks a lot like the ball that Cross used to demonstrate this effect.

The Circle of Friction
A baseball spinning quickly, showing The Circle of Friction on the right side of the ball.

If simply changing the seam orientation can create The Circle of Friction shown above, where else can we put seams to create similar effects?

Smith asked himself this same question and very quickly produced a couple of orientations that produce an effect similar to a scuff on the ball. He called these two pitches: scuffball and looper. If you've ever seen a red-dot slider or tried to learn to throw one, they might look a little familiar to you.

A looper puts a seam near a pole of the spin axis; imagine the Laminar Express shown above with a smaller smooth area. A scuffball puts a seam directly on a pole of the spin axis (and specifically not at the other pole); imagine the Laminar Express shown above with the smooth patch shrunken all the way out of existence.

Both pitches create a rough area at or near one of the poles of the spin axis that acts like just like a scuff. The rough area creates an early and significant boundary layer separation, shifting the wake and creating movement away from the rough area.

Now remember from Part I how gyro shift changes the effective spin axis. A change in spin axis changes the leading surface of the ball, which changes what's happening on the hemisphere line -- the "edge" of the ball's leading surface. With a rough area at or near one of the poles, a change in effective spin axis also changes the effective location of the rough area.

In other words, in the same way that a change of direction alters spin effects, it can also alter seam effects.

In the video below, you'll see a simple demonstration of how the hemisphere line (indicated by the green lines) moves around the ball as the ball's trajectory (indicated by the blue arrow) changes. This spin axis remains mostly fixed, and pitches don't actually have big changes in direction, so we're talking about relatively small changes that result in a couple of inches of more or less movement.

Consider a scuffball with a little bit of gyro that moves the rough area forward on the ball's leading surface. The rough area will not cause as dramatic a boundary layer separation at first because it isn't at the edge, but as the rough area forces a change of direction, the edge effectively moves forward toward the rough area allowing it to create a more dramatic boundary layer separation resulting in a bigger shift in the wake and more movement. This is one way to create late break!

Magnus force complications

By now, you should know that it's still not that easy. Smith's preliminary research on the looper revealed something extremely curious and entirely unexpected. At 90 MPH with 3:00 tilt and no gyro at 1200 RPM, a looper with the loop on the bottom adds about 1.5" of sideways movement on average while a looper with the loop on the top subtracts about 3" of sideways movement.

Looper locations at 90 MPH.
Relative looper movement at 90 MPH, 1200 RPM, 3:00 tilt. Black: normal 2-seam orientation, control. Orange & Red: loop on the bottom. Blue & Green: loop on the top. (source: baseballaero.com, used with permission)

Think about that for a minute. In addition to the wake effect from the loop, a looper can positively or negatively impact the Magnus effect depending on which side of the ball the loop is on!

The same pitch with standard two-seam orientation was already at 100% Magnus efficiency. Somehow, a looper with the seam on the bottom -- still 100% Magnus efficient by all current definitions -- caused it to move more than a 100% efficient pitch moves.

More research is needed at higher RPM and different velocities, and I both welcome and invite that research because, frankly, that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard about pitch spin.

Why on earth would one add to Magnus effect while the other substracts from it? Smith has told me that he has a suspicion that one of the effects will increase and the other effect will decrease with increased RPM, and I think I know what we'll see.

The loop on the bottom of the ball creates an upward force that reduces the gyro shift caused by gravity. The loop on the top creates a downward force that increases the gyro shift caused by gravity. In other words, the bottom loop allows the pitch to spin more efficiently over the entire distance of the pitch, and the top loop reduces efficiency practically as soon as it is released.

The above is specifically true for pitches with 3:00 tilt or 9:00 tilt, but the same driving principles would apply to any looper or scuffball in terms of Magnus efficiency, at least theoretically.

The Take-Away

Depending on how well you've followed everything up to this point, the next sentence may or may not change your entire perspective on pitch spin.

Pitches with different movement patterns can have identical velocity and spin characteristics.

Stated that way, it's pretty crazy, but what if you think about it this way:

Pitches with identical velocity and spin characteristics can have different movement patterns.

Somehow, even though it says the exact same thing, the second version is a little bit more intuitive, isn't it?

For example: a Laminar Express, a looper, and a scuffball can all be thrown with the same velocity (90 MPH), same spin axis (12:00 Tilt w/100% Magnus efficiency), and same spin rate (2250 RPM) as a two-seam or four-seam fastball, but each produces a unique movement pattern.

The difference between these pitches is merely the seam orientation relative to the spin axis. This means -- and has always been true -- that seam orientation is a vital characteristic of pitch movement.

In Part III, I will get into how to describe seam orientation and discuss the pros and cons of different approaches. We've already decided to change a few things since Smith published the post we co-authored on his blog.