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Mudville: June 24, 2024 12:24 am PDT

Do The Math

You were at a major league baseball game and saw a pitcher toss a no-hitter. At another game you saw a player hit for the cycle. And at yet another game you saw a team perform a triple play.

You, then, saw events that have occurred in less than one percent of all the major games ever played. These scarcities led Michael Huber, a professor of mathematics at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, to study what he considers rare events.

“In examining those three unusual happenings, along with a batter hitting four homeruns in a game and a pitcher striking out four batters in an inning, I considered any event in fewer than one percent of all baseball games. I call it a ‘rare event’. There are 331 batters who have hit for the cycle since Major League Baseball started, a couple more no hitters, and 600 and some triple plays,” said Huber.

He’s one of those lucky people who get to combine what they love – baseball – with their work – exploring math. I’m one of the unlucky ones. I had to take math and took to it badly. Yet Huber made the connection between math and baseball interesting and even fun.

Using statistics from every major league game ever played, and examining different baseball eras, Huber has developed an algorithm that enables him to pinpoint with one or two games when the next rare event – no hitter, triple play or hitting for the cycle – will occur.

“I don’t predict when the next rare event occurs. I give a solid probability of when it may occur. There is a very small probability that we will see a no-hitter on the first day of the season – but it is not zero. As the season progresses and no event takes place, the probability increases. We reach a highly probable level in late May and early June. I also have broken down the data by baseball eras,” he said

Huber is a member of SABR (the Society of American Baseball Research) and was chair of its Games Committee. “The SABR Baseball Games Project was formed in 2014 to research, write, and publish accounts of major-league regular season, postseason, and All-Star Games, including Negro Leagues games, along with other games of historical significance such as in the minor leagues or international or exhibition contests,” said Huber. “These game accounts complement Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference box scores, as well as SABR BioProject essays on the players involved.

By now you’re probably asking about the ‘A word’: Analytics.

“I don’t have my own definition of analytics. With our analytics program, we teach students to use techniques to examine data or statistics in order to solve problems or assist with interpretation or discovery,” he said. Muhlenberg’s graduate program in Applied Analytics “focuses on teaching how to use current tools in interpreting data, among other ideas.”

I asked him about analytics, using a made-up scenario in which a left-handed batter will fly out to left-centerfield 36 percent of the time… and Huber started shaking his head.

He then went on to explain that for him, it’s a combination of numbers and a manager’s instinct. “There’s a balance,” he says. Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane in his book, Moneyball, explained how using analytics to win games.

“(Beane) tried to get a balance of getting all these numbers, such as on base percentage, (as opposed to a ‘gut feeling of people who have seen baseball for forty years,’” said Huber, who believes baseball shouldn’t throw both approaches away. “That’s the trick we have to keep in mind,” he noted, adding, “I still like umpires calling strikes.”

On the other hand, Sabermetrics is an objective method to determine a player’s accomplishments, including comparisons of players from different eras.

“Sabermetrics, a term coined by Bill James, is really the search for objective truth in baseball; how do you compare Ted Williams to Babe Ruth, two of the greatest hitters of all time, now throw in Hank Aaron, now throw in other people, how do you think about winning baseball games, you have to score runs though, who leads you to score more runs, who were the dominant people, who was better at hitting homeruns, Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth?

“With the whole business of performance enhancing drugs, you’re never going to get to learn who figured that out, but I wrote a paper with a couple of guys, SABR published a while ago. It was about the members of the 500-home run club. Let’s take a look at their home run rate, so the number of home runs, Ruth, (hit a home run every) 10 something at-bats; the only person who ended up being better than him was McGwire.

Michael Huber

“Over the first couple of years, a player’s career (hitting) would increase, and the rate would increase at a nice, steady slope, but when they (reach) 26 or so, you get this nice flat, you’re adding home runs and you’re adding at-bats might tail off; for the great home run hitters it remained constant; Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, tail off at the end. Then a handful of players hit 34, 35 and the home runs start going off the seriously positive slope, such as Sosa, McGuire, Bonds.”

“Some guys start earlier, Mel Ott, some guys start later, Harmon Killebrew; Guys in the late 90s all of a sudden have this increase (in homeruns at a later age),” said Huber.

Was it because of players using steroids? “I’ll leave that question to the readers,” he says.

A lifelong baseball fan who grew up in Baltimore watching Earl Weaver’s Orioles, Huber has published three books with co-authors Gabriel B. Costa and John T. Saccoman:

Understanding Sabermetrics: An Introduction to the Science of Baseball StatisticsPracticing Sabermetrics: Putting the Science of Baseball Statistics to Work; and Reasoning with Sabermetrics: Applying Statistical Science to Baseball’s Tough Questions.

“One of my Sabermetrics books co-authors, Fr. Gabriel Costa, asked me to write about the Babe’s accomplishments as a batter. I used quite a bit of modern sabermetrics to analyze Ruth’s impact on the game. Gabe asked nine colleagues to each write a chapter.”

His chapter is titled, “The Annihilation of Records: Where Have You Gone, Babe Ruth?” and will appear in Sabermetrics: Baseball, Steroids, And How The Game Has Changed Over The Past Two Generations.

To help pay for college, Huber joined the U.S. Army, and after earning a Ph.D., he taught at West Point, and learned quite a bit about the academy’s baseball program.

He found that a former New York Giant became the Army coach, so as a favor to him, John McGraw brought the Giants up to play the cadets, from that point until 1984, there were close to 80 exhibition games between the cadets and major league teams and wrote about the history of Army Baseball playing games against Major League teams.

“And there was another one six or seven years ago, the Yankees came again, Mariano’s last year. I started writing about the different teams that came up: the Brooklyn Dodgers spent World War II in Bear Mountain, because the commissioner of baseball said, ‘You can’t use the trains to go to Florida for spring training, do spring training up (north). Teams played (spring training) at West Point in their field house. To me, that was fascinating — ‘What do you mean Babe Ruth played at Army?’ ‘What do you mean Jackie Robinson with the Montreal Royals played at West Point?’ ‘Lou Gehrig played at West Point?’”

The New York Yankees asked Huber to examine a question that would need a math-based solution. “I wrote a paper for the New York Yankees, determining how far a home run by Mickey Mantle hit on May 22, 1963, would have traveled, had it not hit the upper facade in right at Yankee Stadium. I used weather data, exit velocity, angle of trajectory, etc. (in short, analytics) to determine the ball’s path. The Yankees supposedly wanted the information to use during stadium tours. I had been taking my sabermetrics class to Yankee Stadium for tours each time I co-taught the course with Fr. Costa. The head tour guide approached me and asked if I could do this. The Yankees gave me a photo with stadium dimensions. I later published the work:

‘Mick Has (Almost) Left the Building’ appeared in Chance, Volume 23, Number 4, December 2010. 

“I deduced that Mantle’s home run would have landed 536 feet from home plate. That turns out to be one foot for each of his career dingers, a nice coincidence,” said Huber.

Even with my predilection for mathematical incompetence, I would have liked to work on that problem. It sounds like it would be fun.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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