No Netting Needed for Foul Balls: Baseball Fan Reaction Times are Sufficient when Paying Attention

FoulBallSignAs the owner of FoulBallz.com, I pay attention to everything foul ball related. Like many others, I’ve noticed that this MLB season seems to have seen a significant rise in fans being injured by foul balls. Whether this is true or a result of heightened awareness or increased media attention is hard to say. Regardless, we know fans are getting injured, some very badly, by foul balls.

This season we’ve seen fans at Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cubs, Red Sox, and Royals games, and a host of other teams in both the MLB and MiLB have incidents that sent a fan to the hospital. Each time this occurs social media erupts in a frenzy of folks calling for MLB to protect fans from these projectiles in spite of the fans knowing they bought seats in these hot zone areas. All those in favor of extended netting cite the “fact” that it’s “impossible to react” to a foul ball coming at you.

However, we can now put to rest this myth. It appears those who claim there’s not enough time to react to a foul ball flying at you are incorrect.

Given the facts about speed, human reaction time and distance from fan, those arguing for more netting need to re-think their reasoning for and assessment of the need for netting.
 

Here are the basics of the typical batting and foul ball situation: A pitcher hurls a 95 MPH fastball 60.6 feet toward home plate. At the distance of about 30 feet from the batter, the player has to make a decision to swing or to not swing. From that distance, the pitch arrives at the plate in about 250 milliseconds. This illustrates the quick response time professional baseball players have, and also explains why players in the on-deck circle, or how Torii Hunter snagged a foul ball barehanded while in the dugout, can snag a foul ball at such short distances from the batter.

 

For us mere mortals, the average human response time to stimuli is roughly 268 milliseconds (ms), according the Human Benchmark. Taking into account there are slower people at games too, I’ll add 12 ms to this to account for the bulk of fans at baseball games and use 280 ms response time as the benchmark.

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A number of articles have been written, like eFastball.com, that discuss the exit speed of the ball off the bat. While the focus is on batted balls, including homeruns, this data is relevant to balls as they careen into foul territory. Some reports have the exit speed as low as about 85 to as high as 120. For the sake of simplicity, my analysis of fan response time and exit speed will be close to the middle of that range; based on various places, the average range is between 95-100 MPH. eFastball reports it as 103 MPH under certain conditions, but has the average low being 95 MPH. I’ll jump that to 100 MPH for a nice round number.

 

While the dimensions of MLB dugouts aren’t consistent throughout the league (O. Co. has the largest foul territory in the league, while newer parks, like Comerica have roughly 7% less foul territory), fans sit somewhere between 50 – 70 feet from the action at the closest points not protected by netting.

 

To more fully illustrate the inaccuracy of the commonly held myth that fans do not have time to react to these projectiles, I calculated the time fans have to react to the ball at various exit speeds (95, 100 and 120 MPH) and at three distances: 50 feet, 60 feet and 70 feet.

 

At 95 MPH traveling 70 feet, Speed Calculator Online calculates the time a fan has to react to be at 500 milliseconds, well within the limits of an average person’s reaction abilities. Cut the distance back to 6o feet and it reaches the fan in about 430 ms. Back to 50 feet? Still well within the realm of normal response time at 360ms. The fan has plenty of time to react and to figure out what they will have for breakfast the next morning.
 
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A ball traveling off the bat at 100 MHP will travel 50 feet in 340 ms, 60 feet in 410 ms and 70 feet in 480 ms. Again, all of these times are well within the averages and means found by Human Benchmark, with my added 12 ms as a way to cover more of the potential fans.

 

When we jump the exit speed up to 120 MPH off the bat, even at 70 feet it takes 400ms, with 60 feet taking 340ms, and 50 feet coming out to 280ms. Note too that 120 is on the high end of exit speeds. eFastball.com, reports that Wladimir Balentin’s maximum exit speed in 2009 was 122.3 MPH, with an average speed of just over 107 MPH. Thus, even at about 50 feet from his foul ball, the average fan would be able to react. It would be close, but they still have time to duck enough to take it in the shoulder instead of the head, if they were paying attention.
 

To clarify, when I say “react” I don’t mean catch the ball necessarily. The data bears out that when paying attention, humans have the ability to react in time, thus they have ample time to also duck.

 

People should also realize that MLB has done the right thing by requiring wood bats which have a ball exit speed of over 5 mph slower than aluminum bats.

 

This data tells us that there are three ways fans and MLB can work together to minimize these injuries without resorting to annoying netting: 1) Fans can start paying attention to the play on the field; 2) MLB can require all parks to have family-specific sections; and 3) MLB can add a short barrier made of tempered glass along each foul line from the netting and to just over the dugouts where the most dangerous foul balls travel.
 

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Given the ball is flying into the stands at 95-100 MPH on average, but has to travel 50-70 feet depending on the park, the average person’s response to a ball twice the distance from them based on the 30 feet batters have to react, still allows them more than adequate time to react. Thus, the whole “not enough time to react” is an incorrect assumption.

 

While fans need to be cognizant of where the MLB seats are that they’ve purchased, at the average speed of 100 MPH and the minimum distance of 50 feet, a fan can react to the foul ball and still have time to contemplate what they’ll have for breakfast the next morning. Pay attention.