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Mathematics, March Madness, and the Seattle Mariners

Mathematics is getting increased attention via the world of sports...for good or bad?

First, there was the "NCAA March Madness Perfect Bracket" contest, sweetened with the $1 billion prize offered by Quicken Loans (and insured by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway). Using the coin flip approach for each game, the chances of winning are supposedly something like one in nine quintillion.

Some questions:

  • Math people know how to calculate the chances exactly...what are they for a 64-team bracket?
  • If you were to fill out a different bracket every minute, how long would it take to submit all possible brackets? And if 1 million of your friends were helping you?
Then there is Tim Chartier, a mathematics professor at Davidson College, who has gained a lot of attention for coordinating an event he calls March (Mo)Mathness. Working with his students since 2009, he has developed a computer program (using linear algebra) for picking bracket winners. And this year, he appeared at the Math Museum in New York, where 50 people paid up to $100/person to work with Chartier and his program just prior to the closing date of bracket submission.

In contrast, turn to Bruce Bukiet, a New Jersey of Institute of Technology mathematics professor, who is becoming famous for his annual Major League Baseball projections for each upcoming season. He created a mathematical model that was even published in the esteemed journal Operations Research.

In addition to predicting the number of wins for each team, Bukiet can predict optimal batting orders for any set of nine batters and the effect of player trades players on a team's number of wins. However, he is unable to predict rookie performance.

Nonetheless, Bukiet's model must be right! I say this because he has picked the Seattle Mariners "narrowly edging Tampa Bay and the New York Yankees in the AL Wildcard chase." No one in his right mind would make such a prediction, only a computer model!

When asked about the "why?" underlying his annual predictions, Bukiet replied: "I publish these to promote the power and relevance of math. Applying mathematical models to things that people care about or enjoy, like baseball, shows that math can be fun as well as very useful."