Everything you ever wanted to know about infield drags

We asked professional groundskeepers these questions about what infield drags they use and why, before, after and during games: What type of infield drag(s) do you use before and after games? Why do you prefer that type? Do you use something different during a game and if so what and why? We also asked Paul Zwaska, director of education & strategic initiatives for Beacon Athletics, for some basic information on the different types of drags, which leads off the article:

When one speaks of dragging an infield skin, there are actually two different dragging operations that that person may be speaking about. They may be scarifying the infield skin using some type of a penetrating nail drag or they could be finish dragging or float dragging the field to give it a smooth, blemish-free finish. There are several types of each drag available on the market. Which type of drag you use depends on what you are trying to accomplish, the type of infield soils, or whether you have a topdressing on the infield skin surface.

Let’s look at scarifying drags first. The purpose of these types of drags is to loosen the top ¼” to ½” layer of material at the surface of the infield. Remember, a metal baseball cleat is only 3/8” long so you really don’t want to penetrate much deeper. Excessive penetration when scarifying an infield can result in too loose of a surface on the skin of the infield, compromising the traction that the ballplayer desires. Too much loose material at the surface will also affect the playability of a ground ball as excess loose infield soil and/or topdressing will rapidly take the energy out of a ground ball and cause it to stay down and not take the proper hop that a fielder would predict.

With that information in mind, you will want a nail drag that is not too heavy or aggressive to prevent scarifying too deep. Lightweight nail drags with the ability to add weight or down-pressure to the unit should deeper penetration be desired tend to be the most versatile. This allows for adjustment according to infield soil moisture conditions. The other feature to pay attention to is the spike or nail used to actually penetrate into the infield skin.

A finer textured spike, like a 40 penny nail, is desired for daily infield maintenance. Aggressive spring tines are also a good fine textured option for scarification. Nails, spikes or bolts that are larger in diameter than a 40 penny nail can create a washboard-like effect on the infield surface that could possibly cause erratic bounces of a groundball. These coarse and more aggressive scarifier drag options are better used during infield skin renovation projects for cutting skins deeply. The scarifier teeth should be hardened steel whenever possible to extend the life of the teeth/tines.

For the finish drag to smooth your infield, your choice of drag could be dictated by 1) the type of infield soil you have, 2) whether you have a topdressing on the infield, or 3) what you are trying to accomplish during your finish drag.

Steel Mat Drag: This is the universal finish drag. The steel mat can be used in any and all conditions with the exception of damp soils or topdressing. It has the ability to move material around and pulverize small soil chunks which most other finish drags can’t do. The ability to transport material around is a god and bad point. It takes some common sense to decide where to start and stop your steel mat drag every day so as not to help create high and low spots. But wise decisions can help cut high spots and fill low ones using these mats.

Cocoa Mat Drag: These drags literally float across the surface. Due to the density of the cocoa fibers they don’t load up and transport material around like the steel mat drags. That means no pile of spoils when you pick up the drag. But it also means that a cocoa mat drag won’t move material around for you if it is piled up somewhere, like around second base where sliding players tend to pile up topdressing. If you tow around a cocoa mat drag with a tractor, ATV or whatever, I recommend using a leveling bar ahead of the drag to spread any piles of infield soil or topdressing before being smoothed by the drag. Cocoa mat drags are great for in-game dragging. They also perform real well when your infield topdressing is too damp for a steel mat drag. What cocoa mat drags won’t work well in are heavy soils with no topdressing on the field. These drags will not break up the chunks that will get kicked up. Cocoa mats work best on topdressed infield skins or very sandy infield soils.

Drag Brooms: Like cocoa mats, this type of finish drag works best on infields that are topdressed or are very sandy. Drag brooms do not have the ability to pulverize small chunks of infield soil. That being said, on the right surfaces, drag brooms can leave a very smooth, professional looking surface. They will perform fairly on fields with damp conditions. They also don’t leave much of a pile at the end of a drag but at the same time they won’t effectively move a pile of topdressing around as effectively as a steel mat drag will.

Many groundskeepers have found that having two types of finish drags tends to be the best option so you can adjust to field conditions. A steel mat drag for when you need to move infield soil and topdressing around and then either a cocoa mat or drag broom for when damp conditions prohibit the use of a steel mat or you don’t want to move the topdressing around much. They all will provide a professional finish when maintained and used properly.-Paul Zwaska

TJ Brewer, CSFM, Burlington Bees

I use several types of drags daily for different conditions and outcomes. One is the typical rigid steel mat drag (72”x18”) with a 2”x4” attached to one end. These are pulled by hand and used for finish drags (time permitting), in-game drags and checking the consistency of conditioner across my infield. They are good for filling cleat marks, a quick level, and do a great job of general smoothing. When using it to judge conditioner consistency I typically look for 1½ to 2 squares of the mesh full of conditioner caught by the drag.

Next I use the 72” steel finishing drag that came with my bunker rake. This serves similar purposes as the rigid steel mat drag. Being attached to a machine it is quite a bit less labor intensive, but doesn’t necessarily give as good of a finished drag as the steel mat drag. This is my go-to drag due to the time and labor savings. I run it across my infield several times a day to smooth the surface or redistribute conditioner after repeated watering, a nail drag or practice. The steel drag makes quick work of redistributing conditioner to create a consistent depth across the entire skin surface.

Then I have the industry workhorse nail drag. I have a 36” and a 72” version. Typically the 36” is pulled by hand and the 72” is pulled by machine. The 36” is actually more aggressive and used accordingly. Although it is lighter there is more pressure per nail and it provides a deeper cut. The 72” makes quick work of the skin but it isn’t as aggressive. I use the 72” daily to control moisture and after every game when I am just looking to scratch the surface to smooth minor fluctuations. The overall conditions, wetness, smoothness and how deep I want to cut are rolled into the decision on which nail drag I am going to bring out. Daily my objective is to maintain the surface; I don’t want to cut too deep. I usually try to stay under ¼” and most commonly I am around ⅛”.

Finally I have the leveling board which is an upside-down nail drag. I use both sizes depending on the situation. My 72” works like a box blade to help keep my infield level and smooth. I use this regularly to help keep my infield level throughout the season. It also does a pretty good job of evenly distributing conditioner across the skin surface.

There are many different ways to drag an infield. Find what works best for you and provides the outcome you are looking for. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Dan Bergstrom, director, major league field operations, Houston Astros

We drag the infield by hand before the game with our 6’x18” metal mesh drags. We use the same hand drags in-game, unless the clay is very wet, in which case we’ll use our cocoa mats.  Post-game we use a standard three-wheeled bunker rake type machine to finish drag the field.  The machine is a bit more aggressive than the hand drags and will break up any small clay bits quickly.

We prefer the metal mesh drags for all finish work to leave the surface completely flat, with no ridges of conditioner at the edges of each drag pass. As the hand-drags get used, the edges can become deformed or bent, so we spend time maintaining those edges to avoid leaving ridges of conditioner on the surface. We replace bent drags as needed for the same reason.

Andrew Siegel, University of Texas-Arlington
I have a home made nail/ spike drag I will use when needed. I generally try to avoid using it to often so maybe twice a week. Before games I will use 2’x6′ screen and we use 5 during the game after the 5th to clean it up. Post game I will also use the screen except after night games. If it is a cool damp night I tend to hand drag again or use a 2’x6′ cocoa mat to glide over the top.

Patrick Coakley, CSFM, Sports Turf Superintendent

Ripken Baseball, Aberdeen, MD

The majority of the time we use a Rahn groomer to drag which has fine spring tines and a broom attachment. This works well depending on the amount of play and level of moisture control. During tournaments on the stadium field, sometimes the tines and broom are not enough, especially when things start to dry out. Then we use a standard steel mat drag that is 8ft wide by 1ft. long.

The spring tines and broom attachment gives you the same result as hand raking and brooming the entire field. The depth of the tines is controlled from the driver seat so you can adjust according to conditions, but usually we just barely scratch the surface so as not to get too loose. This set up allows you to drag the field without moving much dirt at all (like you would with the steel drag mats). So you are able to smooth thing out with less disruption of your grade. The broom then finishes nicely. You do have to make sure you take care of the broom. If you get a couple of bristles bent or out of whack it will leave streaks.

When conditions are less than ideal, like during the days we play four or five games in a day, sometimes the tines and broom are not enough. During these particular days we will dry out even though we water before each game. So we will use one of our 8’ wide hand drags that are shortened to 1’ in length. We shorten the length to try to minimize the amount of loose dirt we pull out of the position areas that get roughed up during tournament play.

During our professional games (Aberdeen Ironbirds) we drag in the 3rd and 6th inning with four 8’ wide drags to make sure we get full coverage. I have tried using the big brooms you can pull by hand but didn’t like them. I don’t have an abundance of amendment on the top layer of the skin but I would still pull all of it into a pile with the brooms and end up leaving humps. It may have been operator error, but I decided it was safer to stick with the standard mat drags.

Opie Cheek, field supervisor

Philadelphia Phillies, Clearwater, FL

Yes I use a 6×3’ steel flex drag before and after game, 4×5’ rubber mat if wet. Shorter drag so it won’t pull to much material. And five 8×2’ steel drags at the 3rd and 6th innings, 8 foot brooms if wet.

Eric Blanton, CSFM, director of grounds, Reno Aces

We use only hand drags/broom on the INF here. The only time a Sand Pro is on the skin is when nail dragging in the morning. All hand drags are rigid and they are used post nail drag, pregame, in-game and postgame. We do use a 6’ hand broom following our hand drag before pre-game watering.

On our infield the rigid drags leave the least amount of lines, streak and/or clumps once finished. The finish broom is to remove any imperfections that may have been left on the infield to ensure a smooth playing surface.

Jordan Treadway, Director of Grounds and Facilities

Roger Dean Stadium

We use a 6’ x 2’ flex steel mat drag with a leveling bar for our pre and post-game finish drag. We like this particular model because it seems to accumulate less material to take off when finishing. The leveling bar is great for knocking down high areas and collecting the bigger chunks.

For our in-game drags, we use four 8’ x 2’ non-flex stiff drags with a composite wood board on bottom to pull less material. On the days where weather comes into play and we have a slightly wetter skin area, we go with the 7’ drag broom for a nice finish.

Also in our repertoire is a 6’ x 2’ non flex stiff drag with leveling bar in an effort to level out our conditioner after adding new material or after a big rain.

When teaching our method, we preach to be patient and go slow to achieve the smoothest infield surface that our players deserve. With our new guys, we like to go with the 4 to 6 inch rule off the edge until they are comfortable getting closer.

Keith Winter, Head Groundskeeper
Fort Wayne TinCaps

On our infield, we use a 2 x 5’ piece of steel mat that is welded to a frame that we lift hydraulically with our Smithco three-wheel groomer.  During our in-game dragging, or in situations where we can’t get the machine on the field, we use the same mat drag that is attached to a 1 x 4 composite board. We finish our baselines and home plate area with drags that are longer but constructed out of the same steel mat.

On our mound, we finish with the back side of a soft-bristled broom.

I am not a fan of cocoa mat, because I don’t believe it does any good in terms of leveling and evenly moving the conditioner around the infield/skin. A part of the equation would be what kind and how much “conditioner” you are using. We use about ¾ vitrified and ¼ calcined clay and cover our infield base on the “lighter” side. All materials require different methods of maintenance.

Matt Gerhardt, field maintenance supervisor

Pittsburgh Pirates

Here at PNC Park, we have a wide variety of drags for our playing surface. Every day, conditions are different with weather issues, so we have drags for every occasion. The amount of moisture in our skinned area dictates what we use.

When the playing surface is dry enough and allows, we use a 4’ stiff drag for our baselines, home plate and all our edges around our skin. (Although we do have and will use a 4’ wide cocoa mat drag when the conditioner is wet.) This work is all done walking and pulling by hand.

For our actual skin surface, we use a 6 x 4’ regular steel drag pulled behind by our 3-wheeler

We have an 11-man game staff and during the game, we drag after the 3rd and 6th innings’ we have an eight-man drag team and three guys that rake around and change bases. We typically use a 4’ wide cocoa mat drag with an open back. Although this year, we are having sponsorship logos placed on our field materials, so we are switching to 4’ wide cocoa mat drags with a rubber backing (where we will apply our sponsor logo sticker to the back).

Again, what we use and when we use it is all dictated by the playing conditions.

Joseph E. Barr, Sports Turf Technician

Milton Hershey School (PA)

In 2014, we were fortunate to purchase a Sand Pro 5040 with a Rahn infield groomer attachment. We do make every effort to drag our fields before and after every game and practice. If you don’t, the foot marks and holes can harden or turn into mud bogs overnight if it rains, requiring us to work harder the next day. Nobody wants that.

Our process includes removing the bases and anything noticeable left on the field. Rake down the high areas around bases, using the back of edge of a 24” field/aggregate rack.

Next we will use a plastic leaf rake to pull back any infield mix/dirt that was thrown into the grassy areas. This includes the base paths, home plate area, infield and pitching mound.

Also using the plastic leaf rake, I like to lightly rake back the infield mix, away from the turf about 12” (both these processes are to avoid lip build up).

Now we start to drag the infield using the heavy-duty scarifier to loosen compaction areas. Then using the springtine scarifier both only going about ¾” deep into the infield.

I recommend that when dragging infields go [START ITAL]slow]END ITAL]. This loosens the surface and aids in moving material to low areas and away from high areas. Always drag at least 6 inches from the grass edge to prevent lip build up. Alternate dragging patterns to prevent high and low spots, especially where you stop. Most important, never pull your drag over your lip into the turf. Stop short and pick up the drag mat.

We then finish with the brush broom for a smooth playing surface. This provides players with better and safer playing conditions!

For the base paths we use a 24” field/aggregate rack and finish with a 3’x 5’ steel drag mat, working it from home to first base and home to third base. Never go side to side. That will create a lip.

For the pitcher’s mound, I prefer an all-hands on method, using the 24” field/aggregate rack 10” x 10” tamp and plastic leaf rake. Batter boxes and home plate area are also completed by hands-on methods using the 24” field/aggregate rack, 10” x 10” tamp and 3’x5’ steel drag mat.

At the high school level it is extremely rare we get called upon to do anything to the fields during a game. Rain could play a part in this issue, however schools do not play through light rain like they used to. The trend has become to avoid injuries and postpone for better playing conditions. I agree with this as player safety should always be our top priority

Greg Burgess, Head Groundskeeper

Greenville Drive

Before and after games we use a rigid 6’ hand drag for basepaths, 1st & 3rd cutouts, and homeplate. We use a Deere 1200 drag for infield, which gives a nice uniform grooming finish to the calcined infield conditioner. The hand drag allows us to get into tighter areas.

During games we use the same 6’ rigid hand drags during our infield drags (five of them). We have knots in the ropes to allow us to drag with only the end of the drag mat in wetter, stickier conditions.