An Updated Look at Baseball Fan Reaction Times: Contrary to Popular Belief Paying Attention is Best Policy

In earlier posts, I made a point about how fans have more than adequate response time to at least duck as a foul ball approaches them if they were paying attention. This fact is driven home more by a science project done by a 9-year-old girl in my daughter’s class. The project was done for a regional science fair and received an Honorable Mention. It draws the same conclusions I have repeatedly asserted: Paying attention is the only way to ensure adequate baseball fan reaction times.

My earlier piece also illustrated how far off of reality pro-extended netting people are and how poorly researched the HBO Real Sports episode was. In that foul ball analysis I used 50 feet as an extreme example of how close a fan can be to the action. This distance is actually closer than the distance designated by MLB. Fans, however, are required by MLB minimum standards to sit a minimum of 60 feet from fair territory (I address this more fully below). Unlike fans, players in foul territory are often located within 50 feet of fair territory, giving them even less time to react.

The debate about fan injuries spurred a wave of dissent and a call for extended netting during and after the 2015 and 2016 MLB seasons. This dissent was due to a misguided emotional belief that there seemed to have seen a significant rise in fans being injured by foul balls. Whether this is true or a result of heightened awareness and/or increased media attention is hard to say. Regardless, we know fans are getting injured, some very badly, by foul balls.

The 2015 season saw fans at Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago Cubs, Red Sox, and Royals games, and a host of other games in both the MLB and MiLB suffer injuries which sent the 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” it’s “impossible to react” to a foul ball coming at you.

The 2016 season wasn’t much better, but there were more people injured by extended net failing than Manfred believed could happen. The human reaction time debate didn’t slow down at all given the few teams who’d chosen to extend netting. People still claimed, with NO proof at all, that the average fan could not react quickly enough to avoid a foul ball.

However, as noted previously, we can now put to rest this myth. Those who claim there’s not enough time to react to a foul ball flying at them have not looked at the facts.

The Rules
Rule 1.04, part of the “Objectives of the Game” section in the Major League Baseball official rules, states the foul lines paralleling the infield set the parameters for minimum distance fans can be seated from the field of play.

MLB standards indicate the foul territory space between home and the backstop and from the foul lines on either side to the stands cannot be less than 60 feet and reads as such:

“It is recommended that he distance from home base to the backstop, and from the base lines to the nearest fence, stand or other obstacle on foul territory shall be 60 feet or more.”

This applies only to the infield though. Foul territory can narrow to a point in the outfield if the team so chooses. Dodger Stadium is a perfect example of this. Therefore, all fans sit a minimum of 60 feet from the field. This is roughly the same distance the batter is from the pitcher.

The fan then has more than adequate time to react to the ball. The 50 feet exaggeration I used earlier, however, is not entirely exaggerated. Players are that close while standing in the on-deck circle or leaning against the railing of the dugout. At this distance they are able to react, usually ducking.

Human Response Time
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 272 milliseconds (ms), according the Human Benchmark. That is an 4 millisecond increase over the previously reported number. Taking into account there are slower people at games too, I’ll add a modest 8 ms to this new total to adjust for the bulk of fans at baseball games and continue to use 280 ms response time as the benchmark. This allows the closest fans an additional 30 ms to react to the ball flying the same distance as a pitched ball. The 30 ms makes up for the slight increase in velocity (a 95 MPH pitch with a 100 MPH ball exit speed).

A number of articles, like, 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 MPH; others have it 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 fast as 103 MPH under certain conditions, but has the average low being 95 MPH. For calculation purposes, the average has been rounded to 100 MPH, but assessed a lower average and compare these with the highest exit speeds (about 120 MPH).

Foul Distances and Bat Exit Speeds
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 60 – 70 feet from the action at the closest points not protected by netting. Again, this is a Major League Baseball MINIMUM requirement.

In the case of the lawsuit filed in 2015 by Gayle Payne against the Oakland Athletics and MLB (which became a class action lawsuit that was later DROPPED due to insufficient evidence), the description of her seats appears to place her sitting about 80-90 feet from the game.

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. Given the MLB rules stipulating 60 feet as the minimum, 80 and 90 feet are also being considered.

At 95 MPH traveling a ball traversing the distance of 70 feet, the Speed Calculator Online calculates the time a fan has to react to be about 500 milliseconds, well within the limits of an average person’s reaction abilities. Cut the distance back to 60 feet and it reaches the fan in about 430 ms. Back to 50 feet? The distance, even if MLB approved this as a closer space, is 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.

At 80 feet, a ball will take 550 ms to reach the fan (double the average human response time). And at 90 feet, the fan has more than twice the time to respond to the oncoming projectile. At both of these later distances, a fan has upwards of a half second to recognize the ball and to duck. If the fan is paying attention, this is more than adequate time.

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 the added 8 ms as a way to cover more of the potential fans’ slower response times.

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., 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, the word “react” is being used to respond, not to 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.

Reacting and Overreacting
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.

Given the ball is flying into the stands at 95-100 MPH on average, but has to travel 60-70 feet depending on the park to the nearest fans, 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 respond. 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 exaggerated minimum distance of 50 feet, a player or fan can react to the foul ball and still have time to contemplate what they’ll have for breakfast the next morning. Pay attention.

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