The Warning Track’s Power: An Exposition

By now we have all seen the valiant attempt at snagging Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley‘s home run in last night’s game made by Los Angeles Dodgers curer of cancer messiah outfielder Yasiel Puig. If not, here it is again:

Courtesy of SB Nation

Ouch.

This looks all too familiar to Washington Nationals fans, who are just now winding down therapy sessions in response to the eerily similar play made by Bryce Harper back on May 13, again at Dodgers Stadium:

Courtesy of SB Nation and SI.com

While Puig thus far has been fortunate to suffer less painful repercussions post-wall collision than Harper, there are a number of parallels to both collisions that make you scratch your head at the possibility that there might be something amiss out in right field.

First, let’s pan out, and take a look at where Puig and Harper had their incidents – Puig’s collision is the blue circle, Harper’s the red:

Courtesy of wikipedia.org

Courtesy of wikipedia.org

Between the .gifs and this panoramic view of the location of the injuries, we can see that both occurred in roughly the same area – where the wall isn’t so much wall, but video scoreboard/billboard. While the panoramic pic I have used was taken from 2007 and doesn’t reflect some of the new changes that were undertaken prior to the 2013 season, it allows us to confirm that the crime scenes are close to one another and share the same background – the video boards. For those so inclined, check out this post by SB Nation’s True Blue LA for more details and a CGI-style rendering of the outfield wall to get more detail.

Another quirk particular to Dodger Stadium that raises questions about the particulars of the collisions at the warning track; for each .gif, we see that both players – both 6’3″ in height – had roughly three steps worth of warning track before they met the wall, which seems a bit stingy, especially in this day and age and the sheer size and mass of the players of today’s game.

With the help of my crack staff of interns and fact checkers here at HDIB?, I found some interesting facts revolving around the various warning tracks around MLB stadiums and what outfielders have to say about them.

First – there is no real regulation as to how wide the warning track needs to be, or what material it should be composed of, only some very loose suggestions. To quote the Baseball Tomorrow Fund Baseball Maintenance Guide:

The warning track is normally 15 feet deep in front of all obstructions; however, consult the leagues and associations that will utilize the field regarding rules and regulations.

…and with respect to what materials it is made of:

The warning track can be made from a variety of materials. It can be made of a rubberised material and poured onto asphalt or constructed using red crushed brick material and or shell rock. The goal is to ensure the warning track material is different in color and texture than the playing field surface.
So what we have here is one of the more crucial safety measures on a baseball field being left open to interpretation – let’s look more at those suggestions and interpretations and their effects on the outfield and the outfielders.

For further discussion of the notion that there is no set standard for warning track material and width, we have this article, which references the book Sports Fields: A Manual for Design, Construction and Maintenance and confirms that MLB warning tracks are in the 10-15 foot width range. This harkens back to the days of the first warning track, seen at Yankee Stadium in 1949 and had a width of 10 feet. It also briefly mentions that not all warning tracks are made of the same material, which adds additional layers of confounding for an outfielder – different materials will have differing tactile and audio cues, if they have any at all.

So we have a safety measure of different widths – outfielders will get no less than 10 feet, but sometimes can get 12, maybe even 15, which equates to three to five steps before hitting the outfield wall – and now different types of materials that may crunch when they step on it, or may not, and may or may not give them a different ‘feel’ as they transfer from grass/turf to the warning track. Essentially, all three of the senses available for the outfielder to discern where they are (taste and smell don’t play a role here, or at least I would hope not) are affected with these loose applications of the rules.

How do outfielders feel about that?

Thanks to this article over at ESPN, we have a nice sampling of what’s being said by those affected by the ever shifting warning track. For those link click averse, to paraphrase the outfielders, it’s a scary proposition and in many ways, they are running blind. With no standardization of warning track dimensions and materials, the situation changes with every series, with new or different obstacles to overcome every three to five games.

With this basic premise in mind, let’s go back to our Dodger Stadium collisions. Not only do Puig and Harper have to counter these aforementioned variables, but they also have another aspect to deal with – the effects of the video board on how their brains process the information and how their bodies function as a result of this information processed in a correct and timely manner. While this is simply conjecture on my part, I do wonder if the lights of the board out in right-center might have played games on the vision and depth perception of Puig and Harper, causing their brains to not be able to process the proprioceptive  and exteroceptive cues that would have allowed them to make the proper adjustments in order to not run into the wall, full speed. Along with the lights, I wonder if the chain link fencing protecting the board might have played a small role in distorting the visual and audio cues that go into determining how close the wall was to the players.

Overall, we have a dicey situation. Poorly defined criteria, a multitude of materials that add oodles of variables into how well and how quickly a player can determine where he is on the field as he is tracking a flyball, and antiquated warning track dimensions that are probably in need of re-evaluation to keep up with the pace of the game and the size of the players, are all at play here.

While we always want to see our favourite players give 100% effort and ‘leave it all on the field’, the inconsistencies of warning tracks around MLB makes me wonder – how much of leaving it all on the field is illusion and how much of it could be prevented, for the better?

Courtesy of sports.yahoo.com

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3 comments

  1. ouij

    Excellent work. I wonder if a broader warning track made of crushed brick would be most appropriate.

    Let us assume that an outfielder’s stride length is roughly equal to his listed height. (This is probably not true, but it’s good enough for my purposes). Ten feet works out to maybe one and a half strides for someone like Harper running at full speed. That’s not a lot of time for anyone to realize that the surface underneath him has changed–and to begin to look for the wall. 12 feet would be two full strides. 15 would be two and a half strides–enough space to give the likes of Harper or Puig time to realize the change of surface and brace for impact.

    So the 10-foot minimum warning track now seems woefully inadequate, no? Well, here’s something else to think about: ballplayers have been getting bigger over the years (just as the general population has been getting bigger). See here: http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2011/4/19/2114631/the-changing-size-of-mlb-players-1870-2010

    So, in 1870, the average ballplayer was 5’9″. Two full strides at a run would have been eleven and a half feet. It’s possible that a ten-foot warning track would have been adequate in 1870. It’s still probably adequate for youth and even high-school baseball. But given the sizes and speeds in professional ball, it’s not even close.

    MLBPA should push for a 15-foot warning track, measured perpendicular to the wall, of crushed stone for outfield walls in all MLB parks. No deviations permitted.

  2. DariusA64

    Nice work, some really interesting points – never really thought about the width of the track before! The players’ comments from the ESPN article raise some questions – such as, if Adam Jones hates the warning track in Camden Yards, why don’t they do something about it? Surely you want your star center fielder to be comfortable making plays.

  3. radinsky36

    Thanks Ouij and Darius for the comments.

    Ouij – I like the standardization with the sizes of players these days factored in. When you consider the behemoths roaming the OF these days – 6’8″ Nate Freiman for an extreme example – we see that regulation and extension of warning tracks should really be considered.

    Darius – that’s a great question that I will check on re: Camden. Jones’ quote is from 2011, so I will find out if they’ve altered the warning track since then. I also agree on your statement that something should be done, for safety’s sake. If they can ‘manicure’ the pitcher’s mound or bring in the fences to cater to their roster’s strengths, why can’t they do the same for their safety and longevity?

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