The following paragraph is from Don Winslow's novel The Force:

Malone and Russo and Billy O and Big Monty and the rest made these streets their own, and they ruled them like kings. They made them safe and kept them safe for the decent people trying to make lives there, and that was their job and their passion and their love, and if that meant they worked the corners of the plate and put a little something extra on the ball now and then, that’s what they did.

I can guess that "worked the corners of the plate" and "put a little something extra on the ball" are baseball idioms and these two probably mean doing something unscrupulous or cheating. But I don't watch baseball and I have a hard time understanding why and how "working the corners of the plate" would indicate dishonesty.

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    I don't believe that the common meaning of "working the corners of the plate" has any connotation of unfair play... it is more an expression used to describe admirable prowess of the pitcher in his efforts to prevent the batter from predicting where to swing. A key part of the job of a pitcher is to deceive the batter though. Part of what the author is trying to do is to justify their behavior as more normal rather than to bring light to make it sound shadier. My 2 cents. "paint the corners of the plate" is another way the strategy is described.
    – Tom22
    Jul 10 '17 at 4:39
  • the phrase "putting a little extra on the ball" isn't necessarily cheating either. "putting a little extra" can often simply mean giving it all you got or something... I would do your own googling.. but here is one with a headline "put a little extra mustard on it " npr.org/2015/10/25/451749827/… It could have meant more using the illegal tactic of putting spit or vaseline on the ball illegally to change the way the ball moves...but it's used more broadly now I believe.
    – Tom22
    Jul 10 '17 at 4:46
  • Here is a pitcher describing how as he increased his skill he was able to throw harder (he isn't describing any cheating he did) By the time I hit the Majors, speed definitely still mattered, but I had to learn to put a little something extra on it. I had to learn to command the fastball, not just throw it as hard as I could. I learned that I needed speed plus something — speed plus command, speed plus variation, speed plus strategy. theplayerstribune.com/matt-harvey-fastball
    – Tom22
    Jul 10 '17 at 4:51
  • The author could be describing the use of canny and deception as an important tool the detectives use in terms of gathering information without it being 'unscrupulous' - tricking someone being interrogated into revealing more information is a core skill for detectives. (but I haven't read the book to get the full context)
    – Tom22
    Jul 10 '17 at 5:00

As you assumed, both are baseball references. In baseball home plate horizontally defines the strike zone. (The batter's knees and shoulders define it vertically.) When a pitcher is working the corners of the plate they are only barely throwing strikes--a pitch outside the corners would be a ball.

It is of course a metaphor to make throwing a ball the equivalent of unscrupulous behaviour, but it makes clear enough sense. Both mean to act outside of how you're supposed to.

To put something extra on the ball refers to spitting on the ball or tampering with it in any other way, which is illegal as it makes the ball move in unfairly unpredictable ways.

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